When Jennifer Bartley stopped her car next to the Pratt Street pavilion in the spring of 2014, what she saw stunned her.
On the sidewalk of Baltimore’s premier tourist spot 25-year-old Calvin Wilkes was bleeding from the mouth as a police officer pinned him to the ground.
“There was no way to describe this other than a brutal attack,” Bartley told the AFRO.
Wilkes had been thrown to the pavement after a friend got into a verbal dispute with an employee of a nearby business. But the violence of the arrest so troubled the resident of the Ritz Carlton, one of the city’s toniest addresses, that she filed a complaint with the Baltimore Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division.
“I also know without any doubt that Calvin and his friends did not deserve to be arrested that day, not to mention beat up,” she added.
Internal affairs investigators concluded the officers on the scene did nothing wrong. A finding which prompted the pair to turn to the newly constituted Civilian Review Board. And there, the outcome was different.
“I was happy, it was a relief they took my case seriously,” Wilkes said after the board released its findings that two officers involved in his arrest used excessive force. Wilkes was charged with several crimes connected to the arrest and found not guilty on all of the charges except the least serious charge of, “failure to obey a lawful order.”
“It gave me some sense of justice which I did not have before.”
But what happens next, and what effect if any the independent body has on Wilke’s case and policing in the city in general is a question both say concerns them.
“I’m worried the officers will get a slap on the wrist,” said Wilkes.
Particularly as the city struggles to reform a department that has suffered a series of high profile scandals over police misconduct and the fallout from scathing report by the Department of the Justice that concluded its tactics were unconstitutional and discriminate against African-Americans.
Former State Delegate Jill P. Carter, who took over the city’s Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement office earlier this year which oversees the board, says she is working to make the body more effective.
“I want to insure not only that we can sustain but also substantiate grievances,” Carter told the AFRO.
Carter notes that the board has sustained charges against officers in roughly half a dozen cases that Internal Affairs had cleared. The findings have been forwarded to the police department’s legal counsel. From that point, it’s up to the commissioner to accept the recommendations or stick with his investigator’s findings.
Which is one of the criticisms that has dogged the Civilian Review Board since its inception nearly two decades ago, that it is essentially powerless.
“We really want to bring hope for the people of Baltimore,” said Carter.
Still, for Wilkes the arrest was a life changing event that would have otherwise been overlooked had it not been for the board’s ruling
“I lost my job, and I even lost a few friends over this, it had big impact on my life.”
He was charged with assaulting an officer and was found not guilty by a Baltimore city judge. But piecing his life back together has proven difficult.
“I don’t go downtown or to the harbor, there are certain things I just don’t do anymore because I don’t’ want to have an altercation of that manner.”
Bartley also had sobering experiences tied to the case which has changed her perspective on law enforcement, and the city.
She had to present a $15,000 cashier’s check to get Wilkes, whom she had never met prior to the incident, out of Central Booking after a judge gave him a punitive “cash” only bail. And then there was a late-night visit by police officers to her condominium to serve a subpoena compelling her to testify in Wilkes’ criminal trial that she says was meant to intimidate her.
“There must be some good people in their department, however in my 9 years living in the city I have yet to encounter one.”
In the end Bartley says she has learned that the criminal justice system in Baltimore needs a systemic overhaul, and that the city’s process of crime and punishment may be only making things worse.
“The saddest part for me has been to realize that Calvin and kids like him are victims of their situation and that our city seems to be working against them instead of for them.”