By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
On the 10th floor offices of Baltimore’s Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement Agency, the Civilian Review Board made a weighty decision several weeks ago, that practically no one knows about.
The case involved off-duty out of uniform Baltimore City police officer Damon Durant. In 2017 he pulled a gun on unarmed teen waiting for a bus in Howard County.
The incident did not produce criminal charges against Durant, but internal affairs said there was enough evidence to warrant an administrative investigation.
West Baltimore Sen. Jill Carter has crafted legislation that would bring greater autonomy to Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board (pictured) , a group she once led. (Photo Credit: Taya Graham)
And that’s where the CRB stepped in.
The intrepid and only civilian body involved in police oversight in Baltimore undertook its own investigation. Armed with the findings, the nine-member body voted to recommend firing the officer earlier this month
It was a relief for Erica Hamlet, who lead a year-long campaign to hold the officer accountable. It was also a significant moment for her son Jawone who faced down the gun, and who she says still suffers from trauma related to the near deadly encounter.
“For them to have suggested termination, it was a great feat for us. I cried,” she told The AFRO.
“We’ve been at this for 15 months, it’s been a battle.”.
But the board’s decision has no consequences for the Officer Durant because it can only recommend, not mete out punishment. Even more problematic for proponents of civilian oversight is the board does not have a mechanism to make its decision public.
Only Hamlet’s willingness to speak out has the CRB’s decision known beyond the confines of the Civil Rights offices.
Which is why State Senator Jill Carter, the former director of the Office of Civil Rights, is pushing legislation in Annapolis this year to give the board more autonomy and transparency.
Earlier this month the veteran legislator introduced a bill that would establish the Community Oversight and Accountability Commission, which would replace the current CRB.
The new body would have vastly expanded investigatory powers. It would also be funded by the police department.
“The only way to ensure real reform and accountability with the Baltimore Police Department is by empowering an independent entity to investigate allegations of misconduct and effectuate discipline, “Carter told the AFRO.
“The best way to do that is to transform the current Civilian Review Board into the Community Oversight and Accountability Commission and provide it adequate resources and requisite authority to carry out its mission.”
The board would be an independent body, managed by an Executive Director appointed with input from the mayor and city council president but who would serve at the pleasure of the board.
Unlike, the current board, it would also be able to publish the results of investigations, a critical component missing from the current process, Carter says.
“This bill puts the control of the process where it belongs, in the hands of the people.”
The bill would separate the CRB from the city’s legal department, an entanglement that precipitated a conflict that she says waylaid efforts to make it a more viable body.
Last year the board publicly released a decision faulting officers involved in the controversial homicide investigation of Keith Davis, saying they were wrong to charge after he was shot by several BPD officers. Davis is accused of killing Kevin Jones, a security guard, in 2015.
After the findings were made public current city solicitor Andre Davis insisted the board sign a second non-disclosure agreement.
But board members refused, and consequently the police department stopped sharing brutality complaints with the board. The board subsequently sued the city’s legal department. Davis eventually relented, and the BPD has since handed over records to the CRB.
The ensuing fallout left the CRB hamstrung. It also seemed to contravene public commitments made by city leaders to increase civilian involvement in efforts to reform the department currently under federal consent decree.
But the prolonged conflict has also convinced current CRB board member George Buntin Carter’s overhaul is not only important, but essential to the future of civilian oversight.
“I absolutely support the Senate Bill introduced by Senator Carter,” Buntin told the AFRO.
“I think strong civilian oversight, in partnership with the police department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, would be an immensely needed first step in restoring trust between BCPD and the greater community.”