Baltimore police should revamp misconduct probes, audit says

Consultant finds shortcomings in Internal Affairs division

  • Karen Kruger, a lawyer with Funk & Bolton, is the author of an audit of the Baltimore Police Department which criticizes the Internal Affairs Department.
Karen Kruger, a lawyer with Funk & Bolton, is the author… (Algerina Perna / Baltimore…)
September 20, 2014|Mark Puente | The Baltimore Sun

Even as the Baltimore Police Department faces criticism over its handling of an officer caught on video punching a suspect, an outside audit of the Internal Affairs Division has raised questions about the thoroughness and fairness of the agency's misconduct investigations.

A Baltimore lawyer who is a national expert on police discipline discovered "many flaws" within the Internal Affairs Division, including detectives who lack proper training, work under decades-old processes and are often pulled from their duties for other tasks.

Such shortcomings lead to incomplete investigations and hamper the agency's effort to build community trust, Karen Kruger concluded in a 21-page audit obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request. The study was commissioned by Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez for $5,000.

"Considerable efforts must be undertaken to restore confidence in the integrity of the police disciplinary system," concluded Kruger, the executive director of the Maryland Sheriffs' Association and an attorney at Funk & Bolton.

The disclosure of her criticism comes amid a public debate about the use of force by Baltimore police. A city surveillance camera captured an officer repeatedly punching a man at a bus stop near the intersection of North and Greenmount avenues. Attorneys for the man released the video last week, on the same day they filed a $5 million lawsuit against the officer.

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who didn't see the video until Monday, blamed a mid-level manager in Internal Affairs for not alerting senior leaders about the June attack. The patrol officer remained on the streets until Monday, even though prosecutors and detectives had been investigating the incident for two months.

Many residents distrust the department, Kruger said, so the management and discipline of officers is critical. "In recent years, the BPD has fallen short in this area of personnel management," she said in the study, dated April 3.

Among her other findings:

•Internal Affairs officers need additional training to make sure investigations are complete, thorough and fair. They also need better legal advice throughout the probes to make sure the cases are successfully presented to trial boards, which determine guilt or innocence.

•Internal Affairs and district-level investigators are frequently taken from their jobs to supplement patrol staffing at special events and to cover overtime posts — a practice that Kruger recommended stopping.

•The division has used questionnaires to replace or supplement interrogations of officers accused of misconduct. The forms can be completed off-site with the help of any person, including officers' attorneys.

"These questionnaires are an ineffective investigative technique and the use of them diminishes the reputation of" Internal Affairs, Kruger wrote.

David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor who is an expert on police misconduct, called the problems a "systemic breakdown" in the agency.

"This is not something you can tweak or tune up," he said. "When Internal Affairs is broken, it affects the whole department."

Rodriguez, who joined the agency to lead the newly created Professional Standards and Accountability Bureau, said that nothing in Kruger's audit surprised him. As an outsider from Los Angeles, Rodriguez said, he needed the audit to provide a basis for strengthening the discipline process.

"I wanted a third-party validation from a local expert," said Rodriguez, who commissioned the study last fall. "It brought credibility to what I already knew."

The shielding of the officer who was caught on video beating the South Baltimore man in June mirrors issues Kruger raised in her audit.

She found "a curious division" in the way the Police Department classifies wrongdoing.

When one of the 2,800 officers uses excessive force or commits potential criminal activity, the actions are considered "ethics" violations. More general complaints are considered "misconduct," Kruger said.

That "artificial distinction" conveys a message that categorizing misconduct is simple and determined by potential penalties from a disciplinary matrix — similar to sentencing guidelines. Such arbitrary standards are a detriment to the agency and to individual officers, the audit said.

"It allows for inappropriate shortcuts and allows investigators, supervisors and commanders to avoid responsibility for making often difficult and unpopular decisions," Kruger wrote.

Harris agreed with Kruger's assessment of the way misconduct is classified. "That is really a concern," he said, adding that incidents of excessive force "are among the most serious possible violations."

While a state law shields internal discipline files from the public, the state Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights governs disciplinary process for officers across Maryland. It also is designed to protect the officers from overzealous superiors.

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