Re­view board seeks ad­vice

Civil­ian groups meet to dis­cuss pos­si­ble re­forms in po­lice over­sight

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Cather­ine Rentz crentz@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/cdrentz

Bal­ti­more’s Civil­ian Re­view Board, which pro­vides over­sight of city law en­force­ment, met Fri­day with sim­i­lar groups from around the na­tion about pos­si­ble re­forms to im­ple­ment here.

Kisha Brown, di­rec­tor of Bal­ti­more’s civil­ian board, said she wants to see im­prove­ments to civil­ian over­sight. Some changes could be part a broader agree­ment be­ing ham­mered out be­tween the city and U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice. The agree­ment is ex­pected to re­quire Po­lice De­part­ment re­forms fol­low­ing the fed­eral agency’s wide-rang­ing civil rights in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The Jus­tice De­part­ment found that Bal­ti­more po­lice rou­tinely vi­o­lated the con­sti­tu­tional rights of res­i­dents by con­duct­ing un­law­ful stops and us­ing ex­ces­sive force. The agency also found that the Civil­ian Re­view Board lacked re­sources and author­ity, mak­ing it “in­ef­fec­tive” at hold­ing of­fi­cers ac­count­able.

Brown de­scribed Fri­day’s work­shop as “a con­ver­sa­tion about what civil­ian over­sight can look like.”

Ja­maica, for ex­am­ple, es­tab­lished a civil­ian over­sight group five years ago that has the author­ity to ar­rest po­lice for crim­i­nal wrong­do­ing. In Wash­ing­ton, D.C., civil­ian in­ves­ti­ga­tors ar­rive on the scene af­ter in­ci­dents in which po­lice use force to col­lect ev­i­dence.

In Bal­ti­more, some changes, such as grant­ing the Civil­ian Re­view Board greater sub­poena pow­ers, would re­quire changes to state law or the po­lice union con­tract.

The city’s Civil­ian Re­view Board is charged with over­see­ing and in­ves­ti­gat­ing com­plaints about po­lice mis­con­duct in­clud­ing ex­ces­sive force, abu­sive lan­guage, ha­rass­ment, false ar­rest and false im­pris­on­ment.

But the or­ga­ni­za­tion has strug­gled to have mean­ing­ful im­pact since its for­ma­tion in the late 1990s. Es­tab­lished by the Gen­eral Assem­bly 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.

Af­ter Brown took over the board two years ago, she im­ple­mented elec­tronic record-keep­ing of com­plaints and ex­panded the staff with new de­tec­tives, a su­per­vi­sor and an out­reach co­or­di­na­tor. She also worked out a deal with the city to keep bet­ter track of com­plaints that should be for­warded by po­lice.

In Bal­ti­more, most res­i­dents file com­plaints di­rectly with the Po­lice De­part­ment, which is sup­posed to share them with the Civil­ian Re­view Board.

Margo Frasier, who over­sees the Of­fice of the Po­lice Mon­i­tor in Austin, Texas, said her of­fice is bet­ter known to cit­i­zens and re­ceives the ma­jor­ity of com­plaints against po­lice.

Frasier said she’s learned an ef­fec­tive over­sight agency needs true in­de­pen­dence from political over­seers, good re­la­tions with both the com­mu­nity and po­lice and timely, data-driven re­ports on the of­fice’s ac­tiv­i­ties.

“If the process doesn’t have cred­i­bil­ity, then you have failed,” Frasier said.

Ur­sala Price, with the Of­fice of the In­de­pen­dent Po­lice Mon­i­tor in New Or­leans, said they’ve es­tab­lished paid “out­reach con­tracts” with com­mu­nity ac­tivists to gain cred­i­bil­ity in var­i­ous neigh­bor­hoods. Price said New Or­leans po­lice — like in Bal­ti­more — have strug­gled with com­mu­nity re­la­tions.

“We have some­how al­lowed crim­i­nal jus­tice to live out­side democ­racy,” she said.

Some civil­ian over­sight groups shared lessons learned af­ter Jus­tice De­part­ment re­views in their cities.

Su­san Hut­son, also with the Of­fice of the In­de­pen­dent Po­lice Mon­i­tor in New Or­leans, said the process im­proved their ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion. But, she said, her of­fice wasn’t able to get greater in­ves­ti­ga­tory and sub­poena pow­ers through the agree­ment.

Pierce Murphy with the Of­fice of Po­lice Ac­count­abil­ity in Seat­tle, which also reached an agree­ment with the Jus­tice De­part­ment to im­ple­ment re­forms, said it’s im­per­a­tive that civil­ian over­sight is in­de­pen­dent and trans­par­ent to the pub­lic.

Sev­eral Bal­ti­more civil rights ac­tivists, in­clud­ing Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, for­mer pres­i­dent of the Bal­ti­more chap­ter of the NAACP, at­tended the Fri­day work­shop. He said com­mu­nity lead­ers need to en­sure that all par­ties ad­here to the Jus­tice De­part­ment agree­ment, given past fail­ures to en­act last­ing re­form.

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