Will a Civilian Review Board Really Be Able to Take a Bite Out of Police Misconduct in Annapolis?

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On June 4 Mayor Gavin Buckely announced his administration has taken steps towards assembling a civilian review board for the Annapolis Police Department. The move came in the wake of massive protests and rioting across the nation in response to the killing of George Floydd.

“Our speaking out and moving towards framing a civilian review board is a building block to other things,” said William Rowel, Senior Advisor to the Mayor and lead of the advisory working group tasked with establishing the review board.

“It is not the magic pill. It is a tool. But there’s a lot of other work that people need to do. All of us.”

Rowel said he hopes the board will help fulfill Mayor Buckley’s campaign promise of bringing increased transparency to the Annapolis Police Department but notes that the idea is not anything new.

“There are many, many civilian review boards around the country,” Rowel said, “some of which have been in existence since the 80s.”

One of these is the Prince George’s County Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel (CCOP), established in 1990, one of two in Maryland, the other being in Baltimore City.

“I would love to see every police department have a civilian oversight board,” said Dave Crowell, who served on the CCOP for 11 years, four years as chairman.  “I think you would actually see a change in policing.”

A committee independent of its police department, with subpoena power and well-informed members, the CCOP holds the trifecta of powers Rowel describes as instrumental to the success of such a department. 

“The X factor is,” Rowel said, “what level of authority, what level of independence, and what level of resources are available.” 

Even with a civilian review board, the Prince George’s Police Department has faced a lawsuit made up of nearly a dozen former and current police officers since 2018, claiming that the police department disproportionally punishes people of color while failing to act against or investigate complaints of racism within the department.    

An expert report filed on June 18 by Micheal Graham, a former senior officer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, found that not a single civilian racial profiling complaint during the six-year period examined was sustained.

“This fact-finding report only reaffirms what many of us have personally witnessed and experienced,” retired Capt. Joe Perez, a plaintiff in the case and president of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association, said in a statement. 

“Let the facts speak for themselves. If you think this does not affect your life, take a minute to read about what happens to community concerns and citizen complaints. Spoiler alert: nothing. No investigation is conducted. No thought is given to the mistreatment of the citizens of Prince George’s County.”

Crowell describes the CCOP as a “hybrid” between the few oversight panels, like the Citizen Complaint Review Board in Washington D.C., that have substantial funding, investigative powers, and a role in disciplinary hearings, and the many more that operate more as advisory committees that are only able to give recommendations.

“We never really had teeth to some of the authorities that we were technically given,” Crowell said, “there is no mandated funding so our subpoenas would have to go through the City Council, which means that in the 11 plus years I was on the panel, we not once issued any subpoenas.”

Crowell also notes that the panel had no budget for investigators and that the Maryland Law Enforcement Officier’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR) prevents civilian oversight in disciplinary hearings.

How the CCOP operates, Crowell explains, is that once internal affairs complete an investigation it is submitted to the panel for review. The panel then reviews the case for “good housekeeping”, making sure the investigators properly sought out witnesses and evidence in order to make a fair anaylsis. Their review is then sent to the Chief of Police, who then either chooses to take or ignore the recommendation as he sees fit.

And while Crowell believes the panel made progress during his time there, such as revealing issues with officers misrepresenting the department while under secondary employment, or reducing the number of complaints of off duty officers driving their squad cars while under the influence, in order to affect real change, he believes the panel needs to be better armed with oversight powers.

“Formally and institutionally with our enabling legislation, it’s very limited,” said Crowell, “independence, sustainable budget that would allow for it to conduct supplementary investigations are necessary,” and “those investigations, their conclusions, and the authority of the panel should also be related to the disciplinary process where they have a say in that process, not just the department conducting the disciplinary action.”

This, Crowell notes, would require reforming Maryland’s LEOBR

“They should also have greater interaction with the inspector general of a police department and more training for the individuals who serve on the civilian oversight,” Crowell added.

In Annapolis, Rowel, who wrote and developed the policy back in 2016, says citizens have been repeatedly asking for a way to give increased transparency to the police department and believes “A civilian review board, in its broad structure, is seen in other cities as being a model to help to do that.”

Rowel hopes to have all the appropriate “teeth” so that the review board may operate in its most optimal capacity, calling funding and opportunities for subpoenas and investigators “paramount.”

“We are in the beginning stages of this,” Rowel notes. “The inclination always is to rush things, and I get it. But this something that we want to get right.”

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