Pugh needs to lead, not hide, on the issue of police reform.

Shame on me for being surprised by anything that comes out of a politician’s mouth, but I was flabbergasted at what I read in The Sun about the Democratic candidate for mayor of Baltimore, State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh.  Pugh stated that she intends to ask the Maryland General Assembly to amend state law in order to prevent the Baltimore chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) from blocking the appointment of civilians to the disciplinary hearing boards that adjudicate complaints against members of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD).  If she follows through on that intention she is being both disingenuous and gutless.

She is being disingenuous because she has been told in no uncertain terms that the General Assembly will do no such thing.  She is being gutless because she knows that the mayor and city council can and should solve the problem of the opposition of the FOP to civilian participation on their own without further help from the General Assembly.  She simply is unwilling to take on the task of getting the necessary legislation through the city council in the face of strong opposition from Lodge No. 3 of the FOP.

She does not want to do any political damage to herself but she does want it to appear as if she is trying to get civilians on hearing boards, something widely supported by the citizens of the city.  She wants credit for trying to get civilians on the boards but does not want to alienate the FOP in the process.  When her effort fails, as it surely will, she can blame the General Assembly.  Pugh hopes that her charade will fool the public.

Pugh stated that the FOP will be “unhappy” with her proposal.  Nonsense; they will be ecstatic because they know what she knows:  Her proposal is a non-starter with the General Assembly.  On the other hand a bill before the city council that accomplishes the same thing has a chance of actually passing because of the enormous public pressure that would be placed on the council to place civilians on hearing boards.  Pugh is doing the old political two-step with the FOP and it is disgraceful.  There is little that a public official can do that is more insulting to his or her constituents than trying to create the illusion of working on a problem without really doing so.  This is a prime example.

During the legislative session that ended in April the General Assembly made changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) that will allow civilians to sit on police department hearing boards starting on October 1st.  What lawmakers did not do, however, was remove the manner of selection and composition of trial boards from the collective bargaining process; that remains a matter of local law.  It is up to each city or county to decide whether the composition of trial boards is subject to collective bargaining and members of the General Assembly have shown no inclination to change that.

Under Baltimore’s Municipal Labor Relations ordinance the composition of trial boards currently is subject to collective bargaining.  That could be changed by the city council, which has the power under the city charter to set forth by ordinance “management rights” that are not subject to collective bargaining. Pugh, however, wants the General Assembly to intervene and relieve the city of the burden of changing its own law.  It is the epitome of political cowardice.

State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, the Senate committee that would have to approve the bill that Pugh wants.  Last month he told city leaders that they need to fix the problem with collective bargaining on their own, and that the General Assembly will not revisit the LEOBR next year in order to do the tough work for the city that the city is unwilling to do for itself in order to place civilians on hearing boards.  He undoubtedly was speaking with the blessing of the House and Senate leadership.  Zirkin, referring to the grousing by city officials about having to negotiate with the FOP over appointing civilians to hearing boards, told WBAL-TV:

“The city is going to have to deal with this. If they want to pass a law, City Council and the mayor can get together and do their thing for the city. They are going to have to do what they haven’t done before, which is, if this is important to them in the city, then they are going to have to tackle that issue.”

Zirkin is correct that the city can solve its own problem.  All that is necessary is an amendment to the city’s Municipal Labor Relations ordinance that provides that the establishment of the manner of selection and composition of hearing boards is an exclusive management right, removing the subject from collective bargaining.  The city council then could enact an ordinance that requires the Police Commissioner to appoint up to two voting or nonvoting civilian members to disciplinary hearing boards.  I pointed out this course of action in an op ed published by The Sun in July, although Pugh certainly was aware of it long before then.

Zirkin’s frustration with city officials was obvious during his interview with WBAL’s Jayne Miller.  Zirkin, however, is not the only state legislator frustrated with the attempts by city officials to palm their labor relations problem off on the General Assembly.  After the op ed referred to above was published I received an email from a prominent state legislator from the city thanking me for pointing out that the city had the power to deal with this matter itself.

Indeed, the view is widespread that elected city officials are unwilling to rein in the power of the FOP over the police department.  As Zirkin pointed out, it is something that they have failed to do in the past.  In an editorial published earlier this year the Daily Record stated that the Baltimore Police Department could not be reformed unless someone managed to “dismantle the police union’s grip on city government.”  The Daily Record editorial board was absolutely correct, although the comment was not exactly a revelation.

The damage done over time by the union’s grip on city government has been significant. For one thing the city’s inadequate labor relations ordinance allowed Lodge No. 3 of the FOP to become a behemoth, representing not only rank-and-file officers but also the sergeants and lieutenants who supervise them.  Of approximately 2,600 sworn officers all but about 50 belong to the same union, and that union is almost a parallel governance structure within the department competing with the Commissioner for control over the culture of the department.  Past city labor and police commissioners bargained away far too much control over the police disciplinary process and the city council did nothing to stop them, with disastrous results.  The list goes on, and it is not an encouraging track record.

When looked at from the perspective of race there is an unfortunate irony.  In an interview with CNN this summer former judge and veteran Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy laid much of the blame for allowing the problems in the BPD to fester over the years on the African-American officials who largely have been in control of the city for decades.  It is the African-American residents of the city who suffer most from abuses by officers of the BPD.  At the same time it is the elected officials at the level closest to those residents, mayors and members of the city council, who often have been the least willing to do their part to stand up to the FOP and reform the BPD.  Many of those officials of course also have been African-Americans.  I don’t understand it; I’m sure someone does.

I have had my doubts that Pugh is up to the task of wresting control of the BPD away from the FOP because of her strong ties to organized labor and in particular her history of aggressively supporting public employee unions during her time in Annapolis.  If this ploy is any indication those doubts soon will turn to despair.

Let’s hope that if Pugh is elected she will have some sort of epiphany and realize that she cannot appease the FOP and still do the job that needs to be done as mayor in the next four years to get the BPD on track.  If elected she needs to forget about asking the General Assembly to rescue her from the tough jobs.  She needs to send bills to the city council in December that remove the manner of selection and composition of hearing boards from collective bargaining and provide for the appointment of civilian members to those boards.  She needs to lead on the issue of police reform, not hide.

David A. Plymyer



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