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The Nose

Toothless Wonder

Posted 2/13/2002

Lost in the crime-fighting excitement of the 1999 election season that swept Martin O'Malley to the mayoralty was the start of something local police skeptics had long sought: a Civilian Review Board, established to give citizens oversight of abusive law-enforcement tactics. But with virtually no budget and even less power, the well-intended body has had a tough two-year existence--as the Nose learned at a Feb. 6 hearing before the City Council's Public Safety Committee. Made up of nine voting members--appointed by the mayor and representing each of the city's nine police districts--and three nonvoting members from the Baltimore City Police Department, the board reviews allegations of abusive language, harassment, or excessive force by officers that are investigated by the department's Internal Affairs Division (IAD). Based on its review, the board makes a recommendation on how the department should proceed with a case. The board examined 107 such allegations from its inception in October 1999 to June 30, 2001, the latest date for which complete data were available to the council's committee.

Bottom line: The Civilian Review Board closely follows Internal Affairs' lead in handling the complaints, finding misconduct where IAD finds it and exonerating officers when IAD does. This isn't exactly surprising, as the board relies on evidence presented by IAD in making its findings. And even if the board were to reach a different conclusion than IAD, it has no power to act on it: The panel can only suggest that the police department take disciplinary action.

At last week's hearing, review-board members loudly bemoaned their impotence. "We were put in place without a budget--no paper, no pencils, no training, no anything," complained board chairperson Cleoda Walker. "We need a full-time administrator and money for community outreach and education." Edwin Wenck, the panel's representative from the Northern police district, called the board Baltimore's "best-kept secret." Southwestern District rep William Brent called for subpoena power so the board can compel accused officers to appear before it.

"And we should be able to dish out the punishment," Brent added. "I'm under the impression most of [the officers who are found guilty] are let off the hook."

All this leaves us wondering whether the Civilian Review Board, as currently constituted, is anything more than a bureaucratic tactic to tease caring citizens into thinking they can make a difference. Nonetheless, the Nose feels the board's pain, and we'll do our part to get the word out: If you believe you are a victim of police misconduct, fill out a complaint form at IAD, any police district station, the Legal Aid Bureau, the Maryland Human Relations Commission, or the Baltimore Community Relations Commission. And feel free to attend Civilian Review Board meetings at 10 N. Calvert St., the third Thursday of every month at 5:30 p.m. Maybe we'll see you there.

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