Misbehaving cops [Editorial]

Our view: It's time city officials started taking complaints of police brutality seriously by demanding reforms in the department

September 29, 2014

Taking their queue from the classic movie "Casablanca," some city officials are declaring themselves "shocked, shocked!" to learn that police brutality is a serious problem in Baltimore. An investigative report on Sunday by The Sun's Mark Puente found the city has paid out more than $5.7 million since 2011 in judgments or settlements of more than 100 lawsuits brought by citizens alleging excessive use of force and other police misconduct. Three years earlier, the city's budget office also raised concerns over its spending $10.4 million from 2008 through 2011 — an average of about $3.5 million annually — defending the Baltimore Police Department against misconduct lawsuits. Yet City Council members claim they had no idea how pervasive the wrongdoing was or how much it costs city taxpayers every year. Don't they read the mayor's budget proposals?

But it isn't just the council that's been in the dark. Except for the actual victims of police misconduct, the public has been largely unaware of the scale of wrongdoing as well, and the city's lack of transparency regarding such incidents seems almost deliberately intended to keep it that way. Nor are we particularly convinced by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's insistence the issue is being dealt with and that The Sun was mainly reporting on cases dating from before her time — the recent video showing a Baltimore officer apparently beating a man at a bus stop for no reason makes that hard to swallow.

Though the department has instituted some changes since Police Commissioner Anthony Batts came on board in 2012, the public still lacks basic information about the scope of the problem, and the department apparently isn't monitoring it in any systematic way. The city's routinely requires victims of misconduct to agree not to talk publicly about the incidents as a condition of their settlements, and the details of what happened are often omitted from public records. Nor can city officials city describe the disciplinary action taken against misbehaving officers under a state law that prohibits disclosure of such information.

Moreover, until a few months ago, the city hadn't tracked the number of lawsuits filed against individual officers, some of whom reportedly have been the target of up to five lawsuits in recent years. That should send up a red flag to higher-ups in the department that some officers clearly are at risk of misconduct. But since such cases can take up to three years to resolve, and investigations by the department's internal affairs division frequently are marred by sloppy detective work, problem officers often fly under the radar.

In fairness, the number of settlements is not necessarily indicative of the frequency with which officers employ unnecessary force. Given the reputation of Baltimore juries for sympathy to damage claims in civil suits, plus a legacy of mistrust for the police department, the city may well be inclined to settle rather than take its chances in court. But the way the system is set up, it's nearly impossible for the public to make an informed judgment.

Mr. Batts says reforms are being instituted as quickly as possible. One of his first acts on arriving in Baltimore was the creation of a Professional Standards and Accountability Bureau to oversee training, policies and internal issues. He toughened up the department's trial board that oversees disciplinary hearings for officers accused of using excessive force, which led to an increase in findings of misconduct. And he has begun computerized tracking of lawsuits complaining of police brutality and combined it with an existing system that monitors injuries from arrests, citizen complaints and use of force reports. But the database still doesn't include all the lawsuits that ended before department began tracking them this year.

The mayor and Mr. Batts have also been dragging their feet on revamping the city's toothless civilian police review board and giving it real power to process complaints and recommend disciplinary action for misbehaving officers. The current panel is only authorized to review cases after the department has already completed its own internal probe and rendered a decision on the merits of the charge as well as the appropriate punishment, if any. Critics charge that the deck in such proceedings is invariably stacked in the department's favor and against residents who lodge complaints.

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