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Want To Evaluate Allegations Of Police Misconduct? The BPD Is Adding Civilians To Its Hearing Boards

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

The Baltimore Police Department is expanding its Departmental Administrative Hearing Board voting members to include civilians, ex officio Mayor Jack Young has announced.

In a news conference Wednesday, Young said the BPD is seeking a first group of 20 civilians to join the boards that rules in police discipline cases.

“The only way that we can effectively move bad actors from the police department is by finding misconduct,” Young said. “To repair the relationship of our police department with our community, it is critical that civilians -- ordinary citizens, residents -- be able to sit in judgment of the police officers.”

By law, BPD officers charged with serious misconduct can only be removed from the force by a guilty board finding -- unless they're convincted of a felony. Current trial boards consist of up to three police officers. Starting July 1st, two civilians with voting power will be added to each board. BPD officers will still have the majority votes needed to declare an officer guilty or not guilty.

The civilian board members will participate in the full hearing process. They will hear testimony from complainants, witnesses, and the accused officer; examine evidence, such as body camera footage; question witnesses, and join in deliberations to determine whether or not an officer violated BPD policy.

If a majority finds an officer guilty of the charges, the board will recommend disciplinary action to Police Commissioner Michael Harrison.

Young made the announcement  alongside City Solicitor Andre Davis, BPD Chief of the Office of Legal Affairs Daniel Beck, and others.

Davis noted that adding civilians to police hearing boards “has been something that the city has been trying to achieve for several years.”

It required legislative change in Annapolis and bargaining with the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents the city’s officers, for a memorandum of understanding allowing civilian trial board members included in the latest contract.

“We got that agreement completed at the last minute,” Davis said. Under the agreement, the FOP will have a hand in vetting civilian board members.

The Department of Justice and the monitoring team for the ongoing BPD consent decree also signed off on the civilian additions to the departmental administrative hearing board.

“This is all part of the Consent Decree implement implementation process,” Davis said.

Those interested in applying must have no felony convictions and no “serious” misdemeanor convictions -- which the BPD defines as a conviction “for which a sentence of one year or more could have been imposed, within the last ten years.”

Civilian board members must also not have any pending felony or serious misdemeanor charges.

The application makes clear that those interested in the board “must be free of any bias in favor of or against police or law enforcement.” Applicants must sign an affirmation asserting this.

Davis said ideal applicants must be fair to officers, but not “shrinking violets.”

“We want people who will step up and be a full participating voting member of the trial boards,” Davis said.

If candidates are selected, they must be able to spend a good deal of time in training.

They must complete an approximately 40 hour training curriculum administered by the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission on the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. They must also complete a civilian board member training program of an unknown length, developed and conducted by the BPD. Finally, they must participate in the BPD ride-along program for approximately 10 hours over four or five instances.

Davis said adding civilians to the trial boards will make some aspects of trials more accessible to the public. Currently, in order to learn the details of cases, one must attend a hearing in person – and those can often be difficult to find.

“We are working on methods to improve public notice of when and where public hearings take place. We are really working on this,” Davis said.

Civilian board members will also be able to talk about the specifics of their cases, including how and why they voted, but court documents will remain sealed for confidentiality reasons.

“Civilian oversight of trial boards has been long sought by community activists and officials who want more transparency in the outcome of internal investigation,” said Darnell Ingram, director of the mayor's office of civil rights and wage enforcement. His staff supports the civilian review board, which is also involved in the BPD disciplinary process.

“Law enforcement officers that have opposed this momentous move argue that civilians are not qualified to understand the complex decisions made by police officers,” Ingram said. “However, given the competence of our current civilian review board those concerns have been dispelled.”

The vetting process will begin immediately, Davis said.

Applications are live on the Baltimore City Law Department’s website.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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