Baltimore cops to post use of force cases online

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said the move was the latest in a series intended to improve transparency and accountability

By Justin Fenton
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Police Department says it will begin to post a log of its investigations into serious use of force by officers online, and for the first time will ask the city's civilian review board to look at shootings involving its officers and deaths of people in custody.

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said the move was the latest in a series intended to improve transparency and accountability.

"We have a responsibility to be as forthright and transparent as the law allows us to be, especially when it comes to our use of force," Batts told reporters Tuesday. He said the city force would be the first in the state to display such information online.

The agency began posting a list of incidents being investigated by a newly created "Force Investigation Team" online this week. The 15 cases on the department website Tuesday included fatal shootings that involved officers, an incident in which a shot was fired into a vehicle, Taser discharges, and allegations of police vehicle pursuits. Some had not been previously disclosed.

When the Force Investigation Team completes a review, a summary, including any policy recommendations, will be posted on the site, Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said. Reviews typically take several months to complete.

Officials say state personnel laws prevent them from disclosing information on officer discipline.

Activist C.D. "Cortly" Witherspoon said the inability to tell the public when and how officers are disciplined "feeds this suspiciousness that the citizenry has for this entire process." Still, he called the online list "a positive move in the right direction."

Robert F. Cherry, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Baltimore, said the union had not been advised of the details of the plan and intends to sit down with top officials. His chief concern was that release of too much information could compromise the investigations.

"We need to protect the rights of the officers who, at the end of the day, are the ones getting the job done," Cherry said.

Under Batts, the Police Department has been overhauling nearly every aspect of how it does business. Tuesday's announcement was laid out in a wide-ranging strategic plan that was released in November 2013.

Uses of deadly force by Baltimore officers have for years been investigated by the agency's own homicide detectives, while training reviews of such cases were not being conducted, according to a commission appointed in 2011 to review the friendly fire death of Officer William H. Torbit Jr.

The Force Investigation Team is modeled on a unit in Las Vegas developed by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Baltimore team is composed of specially trained officers who report to the department's accountability bureau.

"We will investigate the tactics, policies, and [the] actions of the officers leading up to, during, and immediately after" the use of force, Rodriguez said. "We continue to strive to bring the national best practices to the Baltimore Police Department."

A new "use of force" board of top commanders will then produce a report with recommendations to the police commissioner, he said.

The report is to be posted online once it is approved, he said. It's unclear how detailed such reports will be.

Once the commissioner has signed off on the report, Rodriguez said, the "entire investigation" will be handed over to the civilian review board.

The Baltimore Sun reported last year that four of the nine positions on the board had long been vacant, the police and union had stopped attending meetings, and some board members were asking whether they were fulfilling their mission. The city has been working since then to reconstitute the board.

The board's recommendations on cases of excessive force and abusive language have rarely if ever been followed, The Sun found, and its investigations and findings are not made public. In other cities, civilian review boards have had a more assertive role.

Rodriguez said asking the civilian review board to look at more serious use-of-force cases was "something that has not been done in the city, and we're very proud to bring that here with the ultimate goal of being as transparent as legally possible."

Alvin Gillard, a city official who oversees the civilian review board, said he had not been informed of the new plans. He said police have been working to increase cooperation with the board, including attending the board's meetings.

Still, he said, "When you have the law enforcement officer's bill of rights hovering over everything, it does limit what you're able to do."

Batts noted that the department has appointed outside panels to review the deaths of Anthony Anderson and Tyrone West while in police custody. The West review is expected to be completed soon.

Batts said more changes to use-of-force policies are coming.

J. Wyndal Gordon, an attorney representing Anderson's family in a $2 million lawsuit, said the department's efforts at transparency have fallen short. The family says officers used unnecessary force when the 46-year-old was thrown to the ground during a drug arrest, causing his spleen to rupture.

The officers involved were cleared of criminal wrongdoing, and the outside panel said the officers acted appropriately.

"Although they're trying to give the appearance that they're doing more, it's really more of the same," Gordon said.

Copyright 2014 The Baltimore Sun

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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