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What is a trial board? What rights do officers have?

Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the van driver in the Freddie Gray case, will go before a Baltimore City Police Department trial board today. Goodson, who was acquitted on criminal charges in the April 2015 incident, faces departmental charges of misconduct.

These trial boards are the first of their kind in Baltimore—open to the public. Two officers, Edward Nero and Garrett Miller have opted out of the trial boards and accepted their punishment. Punishment for officers in these civil hearings ranges from a month without pay to being fired.

The Baltimore City Police Department Trial Boards are typically private internal civil proceedings that take place among law enforcement officers if an officer is charged with misconduct. 

Typically, the jury of their peers is other law enforcement officers. Edward Jackson, a professor of criminal justice at Baltimore City Community College and former Baltimore City police officer, says the Fraternal Order of Police frowned upon civilians sitting on the jury for hearing boards.

“The old way of thinking, 50 years ago, was that no one understands what a cop goes through, but another cop,” says Jackson.

So the question became can civilians judge “as to whether or not the officer’s actions were in compliance with policing.”

The Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, or LEOBR, grants a different set of civil liberties to law enforcement officers than any other public employees or civilians.

City Solicitor Andre Davis says, “police officers have super due process.” It’s a big reason why the outcomes of the three trial boards may remain private.

When the LEOBR was signed into state law in 1974 it was the first of its kind in the country. Davis says it gave officers rights above and beyond constitutional rights.

“Really no other employee or person in American has!” says Davis.

Jackson says before the LEOBR a century ago, police jobs a century ago were patronage jobs. So, if you wanted to be a police officer back then you had to be appointed by a politician. But there was a drawback.

“And so if a politician, for example, told the police officers not to investigate certain crimes because that politician controlled the police, if the officer didn’t do what he said, he could lose his job,” says Jackson.

So, Jackson says, giving officers rights that civilians don’t have also gave “officers an assurance that if they have to go out and enforce the law they could do it without politics becoming an issue.”

Today, under section three of the LEOBR, a law enforcement agency has a year to file charges of misconduct against an officer with the “exception to criminal activity or excessive force.”

“They make it very arduous. It is not user-friendly, so to speak,” says Jackson.

So a citizen might file a complaint against an officer, but the agency might not recognize it till a year later. Jackson says that even people who understand the LEOBR complain that the responsibility is placed on the citizen.

“To prove that the officer engaged in an act of misconduct, and it doesn’t take into consideration, ‘hey, my rights were violated and it seems like I’m on the defensive,” says Jackson.

The LEOBR also contains Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination.

“If an officer is compelled to give a statement he or she is entitled to get an assurance from the prosecutor from the state’s attorney that they are not going to prosecute that officer criminally,” says Jackson.

So, if someone claims an officer committed a crime, that officer has 10 days to report to the State’s Attorney that a charge has been made.

“And no matter what was said, even if he admits to the crime” it can’t be used in a criminal trial, says Jackson. But under the consent decree that calls for sweeping police reform approved last April things could change.

“We are undergoing a revolution of some sorts in law enforcement,” says Jackson. “The public is demanding change.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has called on the General Assembly to change the LEOBR to match the protections other public employees. On their website they pinpoint three big issues:

One, allowing for civilian review of the department and trial board proceedings.

Two, allowing for transparent discipline of officers in which the trial boards are also open to civilians.

And three, encouraging quicker and more effective investigations of misconduct and police brutality mainly by cutting down on the amount of time the agency has to respond.

Jackson agrees that reform is needed, but says it should happen within the department’s consent decree. And heading into these trial boards, "I think what has to happen is that we have to educate the public,” says Jackson.

With these trial boards open to the public, there will be a steep learning curve for anyone attending them to understand the jargon and proceedings.

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