Baltimore mayor wants to give new commissioner authority to fire bad officers
Current law provides officers with extensive due process rights that critics say sometimes shield them from internal discipline
By Ian Duncan
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — As Baltimore’s newly confirmed police commissioner, Darryl DeSousa, embarks on revamping the beleaguered department this week, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh wants to equip him with new authority to oust bad officers.
But as DeSousa is sworn into office Wednesday in Baltimore, the mayor’s allies in Annapolis will need to persuade the Maryland General Assembly to back Pugh’s proposal to enact city-specific changes to the existing state law that limits the ways police agencies can discipline officers — a statute known as the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
City officials hope the recent high-profile federal corruption convictions of eight Baltimore police officers will help convince state lawmakers to approve changes they have resisted before under pressure from law enforcement unions.
City Solicitor Andre Davis said troubling details that emerged during the federal corruption investigation of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force demonstrated that city police commissioners need more power to hold officers accountable.
“It’s fair, it’s balanced, it protects the officer, but at the same time it gives the commissioner the authority the commissioner needs,” Davis said of Pugh’s proposal.
Current law provides officers with extensive due process rights that critics say sometimes shield them from internal discipline.
The convictions of two detectives on the elite gun squad by a federal jury and the guilty pleas of six of their colleagues revealed extensive problems in the department. The officers were convicted of using their authority to rob people and manipulating the department’s overtime system to get unearned pay. The case had led to fresh calls for reforms to the bill of rights, but Baltimore mayors have had little success getting the General Assembly to approve changing the police disciplinary process.
And the mayor’s proposal sets up another fight between the city’s leaders and its police union at a time when the two sides are engaged in tense contract negotiations.
Lt. Gene Ryan, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, called the legislation “totally ridiculous.”
The most drastic change proposed by Pugh’s administration would give police commissioners the authority to set aside not-guilty findings by internal police trial boards and reach their own decisions.
Such a change would undermine the protections given to officers accused of wrongdoing, Ryan said.
“Why go through the process if the commissioner can find you guilty and completely ignore the trial board?” he added.
The proposal also seeks to give Baltimore police commissioners several options for appointing people to the trial boards. It calls for allowing commissioners to appoint only specially trained civilians, only police officers, or a mix of law enforcement and residents.
The trial boards now consist of three police officers. A previous proposal backed by Pugh suggested adding two civilians to the boards.
Civil rights advocates said the public should be more involved in the disciplinary process. But officers have said residents are not qualified to understand the complex decisions police are required to make.
David Rocah, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said he supported the Democratic mayor’s proposals but would like to see them enacted statewide.
“If we’re going to have these crazy ‘mini-trials’ before police officers [are] disciplined, those trials should not be conducted with juries only of other police officers,” Rocah said.
It’s not yet clear what chance the legislation has of passing. It was introduced late in the General Assembly’s 90-day session and police unions have opposed previous efforts.
Pugh’s predecessor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, made a last-minute push in the 2015 session to pass a package of police reform bills, including one to make it easier to discipline officers. But the effort failed.
During the General Assembly’s session last year, proposed legislation to appoint residents to police trial boards in Baltimore never made it out of committee hearings.
State lawmakers did vote last year to open trial board hearings to public attendance, but the outcomes and other details remain confidential. They also allowed for residents to sit on the boards — but only if unions agreed to it in collective bargaining, which they haven't.
Ryan wouldn’t provide specifics on the current contract negotiations, but said the union has been willing to compromise on disciplinary issues. By seeking such legislation outside the contract process, Ryan said, the mayor isn’t acting in good faith.
“Why negotiate if you're going to do an end-around and go around the contract?” he said. “The contract is there for a reason.”
Del. Curtis S. Anderson, chairman of Baltimore’s delegation in Annapolis, said that having residents involved in the disciplinary process would give the public greater confidence in the outcomes. Previous bills have struggled in part because lawmakers from outside the city have questioned the need to deal with a problem they perceive as affecting only Baltimore, Anderson said. The new legislation’s impact would be limited to Baltimore.
Asked if the verdicts in the corruption trial could help the bill’s prospects, the Baltimore Democrat said: “That’s my hope.”
Davis said it was important for the city to make a fresh push for change.
The city solicitor said empowering commissioners to ignore trial board verdicts would allow them to consider all previous complaints against officers when deciding whether to impose discipline. The authority would be used rarely and officers still would be able to appeal any punishments to a judge, Davis said.
“This would be extreme cases where for some reason the commissioner — acting in good faith with the advice of counsel — really took a different view of the facts,” he said.
©2018 The Baltimore Sun