Opinion: The Reality of a Civilian Policing Advisory Commission in MoCo

Opinion: The Reality of a Civilian Policing Advisory Commission in MoCo

As proposed, bill would not have prevented recent misbehavior by individual officers

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Editor’s note: The views expressed in MoCo Politics are the writer’s and do not represent the staff of Bethesda Beat.

Montgomery County’s police department is undergoing unusually turbulent times, with recent headaches including protests over the killing of an unarmed African American man, video of an officer using the N-word with suspects, charges against an officer for alleged brutality and multiple recent aborted nominations for police chief.

Council Member Hans Riemer has introduced legislation providing for an appointed civilian Policing Advisory Commission to improve the operations of the department. Will it work?

Civilian police oversight agencies have been established in dozens of local jurisdictions around the country. Their purposes vary, often including review of police practices, addressing misconduct, improving relations with the community and otherwise overseeing operations.

In practice, many of these agencies have faced hurdles involving inadequate statutory authority, tight budgets, dependence on police departments and officer resistance that limited their success. Examples include:

  • In 2007, auditors in San Francisco found that the “civilian police watchdog agency is mismanaged and suffers from understaffing and poor morale.”
  • In 2007, the New York Civil Liberties Union analyzed New York City’s system and said bluntly, “Our analysis concludes that civilian oversight system has failed. As a consequence, there is little accountability for acts of police misconduct, for inadequate training, for flawed and dangerous police practices.”
  • In 2016, the departing director of Seattle’s Office of Professional Accountability issued a report noting numerous problems with his agency, including its perceived lack of credibility in the community and its dependence on the police department.
  • In 2016, then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel abolished his city’s Independent Police Review Authority after it failed to prevent a number of devastating scandals in the police department. A new civilian review authority created to replace it has since been criticized for botching a shooting investigation. The police union is suing the new agency, claiming that it does not employ law enforcement officers as investigators in compliance with state law.
  • A 2009 review of civilian review boards in the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems stated, “Unfortunately, numerous civilian oversight bodies have failed and been abolished while others have endured despite being roundly condemned as failures. Existing studies of civilian oversight have done little to indicate how failed civilian oversight bodies can be and should be reformed.”

In Maryland, the authority of civilian oversight bodies to investigate police is sharply curtailed by the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a section of state law. Among other things, the bill of rights mandates that only sworn officers can investigate and interrogate other sworn officers, guarantees the right to appeal disciplinary actions to a hearing board of other officers in cases other than felony convictions, and requires brutality complaints to be filed within one year of the alleged incident. This law preempts all local laws, effectively prohibiting counties from allowing civilian bodies to directly investigate and sanction misconduct by police.

Accordingly, civilian oversight agencies in Maryland are not known for wielding any real power. Baltimore City has had a Civilian Review Board since 1999, but that has not stopped an avalanche of corruption in the city’s police department. The board can make recommendations to the police department, but do little else.

In 2017, the board’s chair told Capital News Service, “I don’t want you to say we have power, because we don’t.” The board later sued the police department to access records after the city asked it to sign a confidentiality agreement to review them.

Prince George’s County has had a Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel since 1991. In 2002, it was given the power to conduct its own investigations. But its authority is largely limited to issuing reports and making recommendations; real power remains with the police chief.

Meanwhile, the Prince George’s County Police Department has suffered from numerous scandals, including a 2004 consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, a 2008 botched drug raid of a local mayor, a 2014 drug trafficking conviction of an officer, a continuing federal investigation of discrimination, a 2018 discrimination lawsuit filed by officers against the department and a March indictment of an officer accused of assaulting a suspect.

Montgomery County’s proposed Policing Advisory Commission is even weaker than the boards in Baltimore and Prince George’s because it has no role in investigations whatsoever, even an advisory one.

Under the legislation as drafted, MoCo’s commission has the duties to “advise the Council on policing matters; provide information regarding best practices on policing matters; recommend policies, programs, legislation or regulations; comment on matters referred to it by the Council; conduct at least one public forum each year for community input on policing matters; and engage in public education.”

What’s the point? None of this would have prevented the recent misbehavior by individual officers that has plagued the department.

The bill contains one very troublesome provision that Riemer says was suggested by Council Member Will Jawando: It allows each council member sole authority to fill one seat. [Editor’s note: Riemer says this characterization ignores the fact that the council would have final approval. Each nomination would come before the council, which could approve or reject any of them.]

In other county advisory commissions, the full council jointly approves a nominee list with good reason: It makes sure that every nominee has to get past nine sets of eyeballs. That system is not perfect, but it does contain an opportunity to weed out unqualified and unhinged individuals. It also helps the council produce a balanced group of nominees.

If each council member can fill a seat without review by colleagues, it creates the strong possibility that some seats could be viewed as pure patronage opportunities – or worse. If this provision passes along with the bill, the council will come to regret it.

The biggest single problem with this legislation is that it will placate no one in the end.

Supporters of civilian review would like to see a strong commission that cannot exist under current state law. They will inevitably be disappointed when MoCo’s commission turns out to be even more toothless than the boards in Baltimore and Prince George’s.

Opponents will not be satisfied with a weak commission. They want no commission at all. Either way, the council can’t win on this bill.

So what will work? First, let’s recognize that crime is at historically low levels in the county and the police department deserves a lot of credit for that. Let’s have a great police chief who can balance the increasingly complicated issues facing any large police department.

Let’s focus on reversing the recent declines in officer recruitment. Let’s upgrade our training and weed out officers who fall short of department standards.

And then let the council exercise its substantial oversight powers to help the department get past its current problems and give residents the service they deserve.

Adam Pagnucco is a writer, researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics.

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