Po­lice agree to share com­plaints

City force failed to for­ward mis­con­duct cases to civil­ian panel

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Cather­ine Rentz

Baltimore po­lice have agreed to share com­plaints about of­fi­cer mis­con­duct with the Civil­ian Re­view Board, a be­lea­guered group cre­ated nearly two decades ago to pro­vide cit­i­zen over­sight of city law en­force­ment, after the de­part­ment failed to for­ward hun­dreds of cases.

Ac­cord­ing to a Baltimore Sun anal­y­sis, Baltimore po­lice did not for­ward to the board from 2013 to 2015 more than two-thirds of the po­lice mis­con­duct cases that are un­der its purview. The board takes com­plaints al­leg­ing ex­ces­sive force, abu­sive lan­guage, ha­rass­ment, false ar­rest and false im­pris­on­ment.

Un­der the agree­ment fa­cil­i­tated by City Hall last month, po­lice will send the Civil­ian Re­view Board all cit­i­zen com­plaints but with­hold in­ves­tiga­tive and per­son­nel files un­til the board ob­tains a no­ta­rized copy from the com­plainant. The board had planned to go pub­lic with al­le­ga­tions that po­lice were not fol­low­ing

the law.

Po­lice of­fi­cials said they did not share cit­i­zen com­plaints that had not been no­ta­rized, which they be­lieved was legally re­quired. Rod­ney Hill, who over­sees in­ter­nal af­fairs in­ves­ti­ga­tions as chief of the Of­fice of Pro­fes­sional Re­spon­si­bil­ity, said that while po­lice and the board in­ter­preted the law dif­fer­ently, there was no ef­fort to con­ceal com­plaints.

“Baltimore po­lice are not in­ten­tion­ally keep­ing cases from the Civil­ian Re­view Board,” Hill said.

Es­tab­lished by the Gen­eral Assem­bly in the late 1990s as an out­side check on po­lice mis­con­duct, the board has been be­set by va­can­cies and ques­tions about its rel­e­vancy. It has limited pow­ers, and most of the time agrees with the find­ings of po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions into mis­con­duct. When the board has rec­om­mended that po­lice re­verse a de­ci­sion in a case, the com­mis­sioner has rarely fol­lowed its ad­vice.

The board can only rec­om­mend changes in how po­lice mis­con­duct cases are ad­ju­di­cated and has no author­ity to dis­ci­pline of­fi­cers or ap­peal de­ci­sions by po­lice.

State law re­quires that cit­i­zen com­plaints filed with the Civil­ian Re­view Board be no­ta­rized. For a doc­u­ment to be cer­ti­fied by a li­censed no­tary pub­lic, com­plainants need iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and of­ten must pay a fee.

State law also re­quires that po­lice hand over com­plaints to the board within 48 hours.

Crit­ics said po­lice were be­ing un­nec­es­sar­ily se­lec­tive about which com­plaints to share with the board.

“They are mak­ing a judg­ment call about which law to fol­low,” said Mary-Denise Davis, a Civil­ian Re­view Board mem­ber.

Around the time the agree­ment with po­lice was reached, the board had put out a news re­lease an­nounc­ing that it planned to is­sue a “de­tailed re­port” on the Po­lice De­part­ment’s “fail­ure to for­ward statu­to­rily re­quired com­plaints to the Civil­ian Re­view Board for in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” The board can­celed the news con­fer­ence the day be­fore it was to have taken place.

Kisha Brown, di­rec­tor of the Civil­ian Re­view Board, has been out of town and un­avail­able for com­ment since then.

Hill said most of the com­plaints to po­lice come through phone calls or email and are not no­ta­rized. He said many civil­ians fail to fol­low up on their ini­tial com­plaint or to make a for­mal state­ment with in­ter­nal af­fairs, much less get no­ta­riza­tion, and some re­tract com­plaints upon fur­ther ques­tion­ing by in­ter­nal af­fairs de­tec­tives.

Hill ac­knowl­edged that the no­ta­riza­tion process can be dif­fi­cult. He said in a re­cent case the com­plainant, who was in jail, was un­able to have a com­plaint no­ta­rized for two months after phon­ing it in be­cause of a prison lock­down and trans­fer.

Po­lice re­ceived 369 com­plaints of ex­ces­sive force over the past three years, but the Civil­ian Re­view Board had a to­tal of 95 such com­plaints for­warded by po­lice and groups such as Le­gal Aid on file, ac­cord­ing to records ob­tained through the Mary­land Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act.

Po­lice re­ceived 214 com­plaints al­leg­ing false ar­rest and im­pris­on­ment dur­ing that pe­riod, and the board had 79 on file. Po­lice re­ceived 134 com­plaints of ha­rass­ment; the board had 41. Po­lice re­ceived 240 com­plaints about abu­sive lan­guage; the board had 65 on file.

Doreen Rosen­thal, the board’s first chair in 1999, said she was puz­zled when nearly ev­ery com­plaint the panel re­ceived was for abu­sive lan­guage. She said she does not re­call any no­tary is­sue and did not ques­tion at the time that the board might not be re­ceiv­ing all com­plaints. She said the panel just took what it was given and be­lieved “it was all above board.”

Alvin O. Gil­lard, who over­saw the Civil­ian Re­view Board be­tween 1999 and 2014, said board mem­bers sus­pected they were not re­ceiv­ing all of the mis­con­duct com­plaints but did not have the re­sources to con­duct an au­dit.

“When we counted the cases we did at end of year ver­sus the cases we heard of at the Po­lice De­part­ment, we knew there had to be a uni­verse of cases we were not re­ceiv­ing,” he said.

He said the board brought it to the at­ten­tion of the Po­lice De­part­ment and was told that po­lice would look into it.

The U.S. Jus­tice De­part­ment faulted the Baltimore Po­lice De­part­ment last month for its han­dling of mis­con­duct cases, say­ing in­ter­nal af­fairs has been “plagued by sys­temic fail­ures” for years.

The find­ings were part of a sweep­ing civil rights in­ves­ti­ga­tion that found the Po­lice De­part­ment rou­tinely vi­o­lated the con­sti­tu­tional rights of res­i­dents by con­duct­ing un­law­ful stops and us­ing ex­ces­sive force.

A Baltimore Sun in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished days be­fore the Jus­tice De­part­ment re­leased its re­port found that in­ter­nal af­fairs in­ves­ti­ga­tions took nearly eight months, on av­er­age, and con­cluded in two-thirds of cases with­out prov­ing or dis­prov­ing the of­fi­cer’s al­leged mis­con­duct, mean­ing that of­fi­cers were not dis­ci­plined.

The data from Jan­uary 2013 through March 2016 also showed that of­fi­cers were rarely found to have used ex­ces­sive force — 4 per­cent of such com­plaints were up­held.

The Sun also found that many cit­i­zen com­plaints were not in­ves­ti­gated by in­ter­nal af­fairs but by so-called Com­mand In­ves­ti­ga­tions Units in the po­lice dis­tricts, where dozens of cases lan­guished and ex­pired. Un­der state law, in most cases po­lice have a one-year statute of lim­i­ta­tions to im­pose dis­ci­pline.

Over the past year, the Civil­ian Re­view Board has worked to re­gain rel­e­vance by hir­ing Brown and ad­di­tional staff. The city boosted its fund­ing from $150,000 to $550,000 from fis­cal year 2016 to 2017. Still, fun­da­men­tal prob­lems per­sist. For ex­am­ple, be­tween 2012 and 2015, po­lice dis­missed all rec­om­men­da­tions by the board to change its in­ves­ti­ga­tory find­ings in mis­con­duct com­plaints, ac­cord­ing to city bud­get doc­u­ments.

Mean­while, the city’s po­lice union has filed a law­suit against the Po­lice De­part­ment and the Civil­ian Re­view Board to block the board from ex­am­in­ing po­lice dis­ci­plinary records. The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union is chal­leng­ing the law­suit, say­ing it is an at­tempt to block civil­ian over­sight.

In the past, Brown said the board has strug­gled to gain vis­i­bil­ity, though she be­lieves civil­ians might be more re­cep­tive to civil­ian in­ves­ti­ga­tors than po­lice.

Brown and state Sen. Joan Carter Con­way, a Baltimore Demo­crat, tried to re­move the no­tary re­quire­ment dur­ing the last leg­isla­tive ses­sion, but the bill stalled in the Ju­di­cial Pro­ceed­ings Com­mit­tee.

Con­way said other state se­na­tors were wor­ried about another pro­vi­sion of the leg­is­la­tion that would have en­abled the board to sub­poena of­fi­cers ac­cused of mis­con­duct. Now the board may only sub­poena of­fi­cers who are wit­nesses.

Con­way, who spon­sored the leg­is­la­tion that es­tab­lished the board in 1999, said she was sur­prised that the no­tary re­quire­ment was caus­ing such a prob­lem. She said it was orig­i­nally in­tended to en­sure that com­plaints were valid, but that she now rec­og­nizes the im­ped­i­ment it has cre­ated.

She plans to rein­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion to re­move the no­tary re­quire­ment dur­ing the next ses­sion.

Such a re­quire­ment has lit­tle im­pact on min­i­miz­ing false com­plaints and is an “un­nec­es­sary and out­dated ob­sta­cle to fil­ing a com­plaint,” said Michael Tobin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Po­lice Com­plaints in Wash­ing­ton, a cit­i­zen over­sight group.

“The cit­i­zen com­plaint sys­tem in most ju­ris­dic­tions is al­ready tilted to fa­vor po­lice of­fi­cers, and a no­tary re­quire­ment is just one more item that tips that scale and makes it even more un­bal­anced,” Tobin said.

Com­plainants in Wash­ing­ton are re­quired to sign that their state­ments are true, but do not have to have them no­ta­rized.

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