Complaints against Baltimore police officers grow as new accountability board takes shape

Published on: January 12, 2023 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: January 27, 2023 8:28 PM EST

People around table with Mayor Brandon Scott and Senator Jill Carter
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A backlog of hundreds of complaints about Baltimore police officers continues to grow each week as city officials make their final push toward setting up a new citizen-led oversight board.

The board was mandated in late 2021 by the speaker of Maryland State House, the result of a police accountability workgroup. Baltimore City’s will be one of the last police accountability boards in the state to get up and running.

The delays can be traced back to a lengthy fight in Annapolis that put Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration about six months behind schedule, as well as the decision by the City Council to allow each of its 15 members to nominate their own member to the new Police Accountability Board, inflating its size in the process. With two appointees from the mayor himself, the board will consist of 17 members. For comparison, the board in Prince George’s County will have 10 members.

The board will review and investigate citizen complaints on Baltimore law enforcement officers, including the city’s police and sheriff’s departments, school police and the soon-to-be-formed private Johns Hopkins University police department, among others.

The new oversight board’s origin story in Baltimore is one of a protracted fight between the Scott administration and a group of lawmakers led by Sen. Jill Carter, the Baltimore Democrat who helped create the city’s existing Civilian Review Board in the late 1990s — one of the first of its kind to delegate some level of decision making on police complaints to the public.

Carter saw the investigatory powers given to the new state-mandated police accountability boards — the ability to subpoena testimony and a broader scope in the types of complaints it could review — as an opportunity. Those mechanics should infused into the existing civilian review board, which had been floundering due to its limited scope and power, Carter decided.

The thought process was that a broader-based investigatory board would better represent the community and be easier to set up. The senator’s proposal was backed by an array of grassroots and statewide criminal justice reform groups.

But Scott’s administration saw things differently, and lobbied to turn back Carter’s proposal. Instead of revamping the Civilian Review Board, the mayor’s administration opted to phase it out and stick to the blueprint outlined in the recently passed law. City officials did make other concessions to reformers, such as giving the new board the ability to retain independent legal counsel.

The model prescribed by the state law allows for broad, community-based input on policy discussions, but segments the work of investigating citizen complaints to a leaner, more easily managed charging committee. Administration officials opted to go that route in part due to a hesitancy to deviate from the law’s prescription and in part due to fears that it would be too challenging to get a larger board to meet regularly and put in the time it takes to investigate complaints. The Civilian Review Board, they noted, has struggled in recent years to even reach a quorum.

Even with that fight behind them, the task of creating a new police accountability board from whole cloth has proved challenging to administration officials, especially with the expanded size of the board taking shape in Baltimore.

That hasn’t come as a surprise to Dayvon Love, a grassroots community activist and director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a think tank that advocated for Carter’s vision of infusing new powers into the existing review board.

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Aside from more substantive, ideological differences he and other reformers had with the administration’s position on the accountability board, Love said they also made a more administrative argument: The city didn’t necessarily have the bandwidth to forge a new citizen-led board from scratch.

“It takes a lot of work to build a structure like that,” Love said. “The city just has a lot to do. It’s burdened with a lot of other things to do.”

In recent weeks, all 17 would-be members of the accountability board have been submitted to the City Council for confirmation, an important hurdle to clear. The mayor’s office said it was working with the City Council president to schedule a hearing with the goal of confirming the remaining nominees at the next council meeting.

Next would be a swearing-in ceremony that the mayor’s office said would happen “as soon as possible,” followed by the board’s initial meeting that same day. Then the administration would still have to work with the board to set up and train the members of the administrative charging committee, a wing of the board tasked with investigating citizen complaints.

Scott’s office said they anticipate that members will begin to review the backlog of complaints by March, “barring any delays.”

More than 300 complaints have been forwarded to the yet-to-be-trained board since July 1, the vast majority of them concerning the Baltimore Police Department, according to a newly released report by the city’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights. The allegations ranged from discourteous behavior to excessive force and criminal misconduct.

Within the first six months of receiving complaints, the civil rights office identified 212 officers with one complaint, 42 officers with two complaints, and four officers with three complaints.

Yanet Amanuel, director of public policy at the ACLU of Maryland, also favored the Carter model of using the police reform law to bolster the Civilian Review Board. She said that the the city’s reluctance to do that, and its delayed implementation of the police accountability board “will only further erode trust between the city, police and the residents they are supposed to serve.”

“It is unacceptable that between July and now there have been over 300 complaints of police misconduct filed that have yet to be reviewed and investigated,” Amanuel said.

Maryland's police accountability boards were mandated by House Bill 670, which was crafted by the speaker of the Maryland State House and members of the House Police Accountability Workgroup and Judiciary Committee. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the law that created the police accountability boards.