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Editorial Advisory Board: 3 alarms about Baltimore police reform

Reforming the Baltimore Police Department continues to be one of the most important tasks facing our city and state. The road to reform, though, remains rocky and steep. We owe it to ourselves to stay as informed as possible about the reform efforts and to do what we can to address the impediments to reform. Thus, three recent documents concerning the Baltimore Police Department should be required reading for anyone who cares about our city.

The first is Chief Judge James K. Bredar’s July 13 memorandum and order in the consent decree case. Bredar is responsible for ensuring the requirements of the agreement embodied in the consent decree are properly and timely implemented. The concerns he expresses are grave. They focus heavily on the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, the entity, he notes, “primarily responsible for misconduct investigations and discipline.”

Expressing palpable concern, with emphasis supplied by his own italics, Bredar writes: “The Court does not doubt BPD’s good faith, but it has growing concerns about BPD’s ability to deliver on its promises, i.e., its capacity to achieve compliance with the Consent Decree.” Expanding on that concern, he continues: “Misconduct Investigations and Discipline is a critical element of the Consent Decree and of any well-functioning, professional police department – it ensures accountability with the Department and to the community the Department serves. The Monitoring Team’s Request [for an extension in various deadlines] reveals an accountability system that is completely dysfunctional and that requires ‘bedrock structural reform.’”

He concludes: “The critical importance of this issue mandates that BPD’s misconduct and discipline system be rebuilt from the foundation up to ensure it functions as a fair, transparent, and robust arbiter of integrity.”

The second required-reading document is the BPD monitoring team’s July 18 first semi-annual report. The report is breathtaking in its recitation of the challenges to reform that must be overcome. It comes as no surprise for the report to state: “BPD’s system for holding officers accountable for misconduct is broken.” Without understatement, the report reminds: “Without a properly functioning Office of Professional Responsibility holding officers accountable for violating Departmental policies, the reforms the Consent Decree mandates in other areas will be ineffectual, the prospects for regaining the community’s trust will be lost, and the reform effort will collapse.”

The report addresses the current disconnect between the Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the Civilian Review Board of Baltimore City. Referring to the lack of coordination and interaction between the OPR and the CRB, the report states: “Though the OPR and CRB must interact and coordinate to fulfill their respective statutory roles, the actual process for guiding such interactions has been ill-defined; no protocol for communication between the entities has ever existed.” It concludes that “(e)stablishing clear written protocols for how OPR and CRB interact will require extensive collaboration as well as consideration of state law (and) CRB and OPR must have sufficient time to participate fully and collaboratively in the development of these protocols.”

‘Must be abolished’

The third must-read item is the June 30 report of the Community Oversight Task Force, which was mandated by the consent decree and whose members were appointed by Mayor Catherine Pugh. (“The Parties recognize that effective civilian and community oversight of BPD is essential to rebuilding trust between BPD and the communities it serves and ensuring that BPD’s enforcement activities reflect community values and are consistent with the Constitution and federal, state, and local laws….Recognizing that these issues require substantial consideration and input, the City will establish… a Community Oversight Task Force (‘COTF’) to recommend reforms to the current system of civilian oversight…. COTF will review the functions of the Civilian Review Board (‘CRB’), and whether there are impediments to BPD civilian complaint processes that inhibit the ability of the Baltimore community to seek accountability for police misconduct.”)

The COTF’s report, issued a couple of weeks before the monitoring team’s report, calls for the existing CRB to be abolished. It concludes: “The limited scope and authority of the CRB has created a situation in which police accountability is difficult, if not impossible to achieve. And, the legitimacy deficits of this system cannot be overcome. The CRB in its current form has very little, if anything, to offer Baltimoreans, and it must be abolished. If it is to have effective, impartial oversight, Baltimore must begin with a clean slate.”

We urge all parties to take prompt action on the comments in Bredar’s memorandum and order and in both of the reports. All three stress the critical importance of real and effective civilian oversight over the police. Whether or not the CRB is dramatically strengthened or reformed or replaced entirely, it seems patently clear that Baltimore needs to radically improve civilian oversight over the Baltimore Police Department. We hope that the entire city government, as well as the General Assembly, will embrace and implement this critical civilian oversight reform without delay.

Editorial Advisory Board member Arthur F. Fergenson did not participate in this opinion.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

John Bainbridge Jr.

Wesley D. Blakeslee

Martha Ertman

Arthur F. Fergenson

Susan Francis

Marcella A. Holland

David Jaros

Ericka King

Stephen Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the Board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the Bench, Bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, majority views and signed rebuttals will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.

Find out more about the members of the Editorial Advisory Board.