Baltimore City officials are in the process of setting up a new state-mandated police accountability board tasked with weighing in on policy discussions and appointing members to a smaller disciplinary committee that will investigate citizen complaints. Applications for the board are due Friday.

The city is acting later than other jurisdictions, largely because it was slowed by a prolonged fight in Annapolis that left many criminal justice advocates dissatisfied with how the new oversight group is taking shape. The effort has also been beset by other issues, including a disorganized application process and limited outreach efforts that have drawn only modest interest, a lack of clear details on how the board and its accompanying committee will function, and a sprawling 17-member structure that could prove difficult to organize.

The stakes are high for Baltimore. Faced with stubbornly high rates of violent crime, Mayor Brandon Scott and his advisors have made reversing the erosion of goodwill toward city police a top priority. They see the new board and its disciplinary committee as key to restoring the type of relationships that will eventually lead to renewed community help in solving crimes.

But the city has already lost support among some advocacy groups and grassroots organizers. Earlier this spring, a number of criminal justice reformers in Baltimore had aligned behind a bill proposed by Democratic state Sen. Jill Carter that would transfer the broad scope and investigatory powers granted under the new law to the existing Civilian Review Board, a similarly tasked group created by the state legislature in 1999. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration countered Carter on the details of her plan, citing technical concerns. City Hall’s opposition ground the proposal to a halt.

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Though Carter’s legislation faltered, advocates won significant concessions from the city. Most notably, and unlike the Civilian Review Board, the police accountability board will have the option to retain independent attorneys and won’t have to rely on the city law office — a sticking point for many activists.

Still, some reformers and allied lawmakers have described the city’s choices in implementing the new board as a series of missed opportunities, in which real community oversight was passed over for a more bureaucratic and process-oriented method of administering discipline with civilian input.

“At the end of the day, this board, if it is not going to be a community-led board with authority, then it’s absolutely futile, and it’s absolutely in conflict with the legislative intent,” said Carter, who ran the Civilian Review Board several years ago.

What happened in Annapolis

After the Police Accountability Act passed through the Maryland General Assembly in 2021, Carter and other Baltimore lawmakers argued that Baltimore City was unique in two ways: it had a well-documented history of police misconduct and it already had something akin to a police accountability board.

The carve-out they came up with would transfer the powers granted under the new law to revitalize a long-undermined, civilian-organized group in dire need of additional resources and investigatory capabilities.

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Combining the boards would accomplish what many reformers have always wanted: a community-led oversight board with subpoena power and the ability to investigate any citizen complaint and make binding decisions. A coalition of criminal justice reform groups lined up behind Carter’s proposal.

But Scott’s administration had issues with Carter’s plan, expressing concerns over the mechanics and offering tweaks to the companion House bill until neither Carter nor her House co-sponsor, Del. Stephanie Smith, supported the legislation any longer.

“Respectfully, I, based on the trajectory of where this bill is going, will be withdrawing my bill, if it will not be adopted in the posture that it had coming out of the House,” Smith said, referring to amendments proposed by city officials, during a March 25 meeting of the Baltimore City Senate delegation.

In the end, the Senate delegation tabled the matter for a year, acknowledging that lawmakers had additional work to do. The city was left with two overlapping boards, both mandated under state law and both splitting limited resources from its Office of Equity and Civil Rights. That office currently has three staff members dividing the work of setting up one board and maintaining the other.

Since winning that fight, city administrators have sought to address some of the demands of reformers through a series of amendments, while leaning into the model proposed under state law that gives investigatory and subpoena power to the slimmer — and more easily-managed — administrative charging committee.

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Just one of the 17 police accountability board members will end up on that five-person charging committee, which is likely to devote at least one full day per week to reviewing complaints. The board will appoint two other civilian members and the mayor will appoint the final two. The larger police accountability board will be more focused on policy issues.

The administration sees the charging committee model as better suited to manage a heavy workload of civilian complaints — about 1,000 of them per year. Committee members will rely on fact-finding from independent investigators staffed through the Office of Civil Rights and Equity, which city officials see as an effective firewall from Police Department influence.

City officials’ hesitancy to give subpoena power to a larger, more community-oriented body stems in part from their experience with the Civilian Review Board, which currently has four out of its nine seats vacant and has struggled with attendance.

So far in 2022, the review board has rescheduled four monthly meetings and cancelled one due to a lack of quorum. But that may be due to the perception that it has been hamstrung from making meaningful decisions.

Tiera Hawkes, the chairwoman of the board, said during a legislative hearing this spring that she supported combining the accountability boards.

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Since joining the Civilian Review Board more than two years ago, Hawkes said, it had “been ridiculed for its limited power and jurisdiction because we’re only limited to five allegations.”

“We lack funding and outreach tools and other advancements to be an effective player,” Hawkes said at a March 1 hearing. “The Civilian Review Board cannot be ignored, as we are a key player in the consent decree.”

Few signs of community involvement

In describing their ideal candidates for the board, City Council members and the mayor mentioned a desire to attract a diverse swath of people with different lived experiences. But it’s not clear they’ve been successful in raising awareness about the opportunity.

Kelly Davis, a community advocate for police and prosecutorial accountability, held a virtual information session about the police accountability board, and said most who logged on hadn’t yet heard of it.

Davis faulted inconsistencies in the application process. Unlike other jurisdictions in Maryland, the City Council passed a bill giving council members the power to appoint people to the board. Many are still soliciting applications, but some say they have already chosen a candidate to appoint. And it’s unclear to constituents who has already decided.

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“That’s just disingenuous to the public,” Davis said. “If you feel like it’s a good idea to appoint someone, don’t ask people to waste their time and send an application in.”

Those who do express interest will find the process short on details. Though the board is stipulated by law to meet quarterly, that time commitment is in flux. As funding for the board is still be finalized, the amount of compensation available for charging committee members is similarly undecided.

The board is currently slated to get at least $1.5 million, about double the budget of the civilian review board, though that number could increase.

There are also concerns about the size of the volunteer board. At the insistence of some advocacy groups to decentralize decision-making authority from the mayor’s office, council members allowed board membership to grow to 17 seats, one for each council district — which, in addition to the mayor’s appointments, makes the board larger than the City Council itself.

DeRay Mckesson, a Baltimore-based civil rights activist, noted that although advocacy groups requested that every City Council member gets to make an appointment for “geographical diversity,” the actual city law does not require them to appoint someone from within their own district.

“Citizens are being encouraged to apply but many, if not most of the appointment decisions have already been made by individual council members before the application deadline has even passed,” Mckesson said. “The [board] is starting from a place of no legitimacy. How could it possibly hold the Police Department accountable?

Councilman Mark Conway, who has led the City Council’s efforts overseeing the new board, said that while he understood concerns about the application process and size of the board, he thought it would function fine.

“More important than the size of the board I think is the people who we select for the board, and making sure we have folks that really have an understanding of their district and their neighborhoods,” Conway said.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said that the board is “its own entity that must set its own course going forward.”

“The exact time commitment will be shaped by the [Police Accountability Board’s] priorities and the individual members,” the spokesperson said. “Considering the importance of PAB’s work, we anticipate monthly meetings, specialized subcommittee meetings, and independent review of materials.”

A rushed process

Councilwoman Odette Ramos said that if there weren’t strict deadlines mandated by the state law, council members might have had the chance to “be a little more prescriptive” on some of the details of how the new board and committee will function.

Ramos said she recently visited the Baltimore Police Department’s Public Integrity Bureau, which she described as a “pretty amazing operation.” She emphasized that the bureau has grown tenfold since the days of the Gun Trace Task Force and has taken on a lot of civilian employees.

That bureau will still be mandated by the consent decree to investigate civilian complaints, but those investigations will now run parallel to independent ones staffed by city officials in the Office of Civil Rights and Equity.

“We always have to have outside transparency and accountability, and that’s where the Police Accountability Board comes in,” Ramos said. “Police investigating themselves is much different than other people investigating them.”

For the grassroots organizers, that difference is less pronounced as far as the new police accountability boards are concerned.

Dayvon Love, an advocate who worked on the police accountability issue and is the director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said Baltimore City’s board represented a compromise between what advocates fought for and what leadership at the city and state level could offer in return.

He noted that the city passed amendments that made the model more tailored for independence than has been established in other jurisdictions, such as limiting the number of former police officers allowed to sit on the board. But it still fell short of his expectations.

“It will be better than what we had, but not nearly enough for community oversight,” Love said. “I think that’s just the circumstance we’re in, given what passed in 2021.”

bconarck@thebaltimorebanner.com

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Ben Conarck is a criminal justice reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Previously, he covered healthcare and investigations for the Miami Herald and criminal justice for the Florida Times-Union.

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