Plea to Maryland leaders: Fix Baltimore police discipline

David A. Plymyer

This is a plea to the governor and leaders of the Maryland General Assembly: Please take charge of fixing the broken disciplinary system of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). This is a problem that only you can solve. The fix requires changes to state law, and the longer a fix is delayed, the worse the problems within the BPD become.

If we have learned anything over the past three years, since the fatal injury to Freddie Gray in the back of a police van — culminating with the fallout from the Gun Trace Task Force — it is that the current disciplinary system doesn’t work. The flapdoodle between Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis and members of the Civilian Review Board, who are refusing to sign a confidentiality agreement regarding police misconduct allegations, is the latest example of the need to straighten out this mess.

The Community Oversight Task Force, an advisory body mandated by the consent decree between the city and the Department of Justice, recently recommended taking away from the BPD investigatory responsibility for allegations of police misconduct involving civilians. The responsibility would be given to an independent agency staffed by civilians and known as the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA). COPA would be supervised by another new entity, the Police Accountability Commission.

Under the task force proposal, the existing system governed by the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) would be retained by the BPD to investigate allegations of police misconduct not involving civilians. In other words, the proposal would take a system that already is too complex and make it even more byzantine. The system needs fewer moving parts, not more.

The best chance of success to maintain the discipline of the BPD lies in restoring the power to the Baltimore Police Commissioner and holding the commissioner strictly accountable for the results. Here is what I believe should be done:

• Under the LEOBR, the decision whether an officer has committed a violation for which discipline may be imposed is made by a hearing board, rather than by the commissioner. Hearing boards consist of rotating groups of other officers from within the department. Members of hearing boards are accountable to no one for their decisions. Eliminate the hearing boards. Return decisions on whether officers have committed disciplinary violations to the commissioner.

• I agree with the Community Oversight Task Force that more oversight of police discipline is required. Recast the existing Civilian Review Board from a parallel investigatory agency into a body with true oversight authority, including unfettered real-time access to employees, personnel records and investigatory files. Give it an ombudsman role for complainants and the power to subpoena witnesses if necessary to ascertain the quality of an internal investigation. The roles of the BPD and the reconstituted Civilian Review Board would not overlap. It would be the job of the commissioner to enforce discipline; it would be the job of the review board to monitor how well the commissioner does so.

• Require the Civilian Review Board to prepare an annual report on disciplinary actions that evaluates the performance of the commissioner in enforcing discipline. If the commissioner’s performance is unsatisfactory then the mayor has an obvious remedy: Fire the commissioner. Citizens might be pleasantly surprised how fear of losing his or her job focuses a public official’s attention on a task. But you can’t do that until you give the official the tools to accomplish the task.

• Finally, scrap the confidentiality laws that shield the records of disciplinary actions from public scrutiny. It’s absurd that, given the crisis in confidence in the BPD, we’re still concerned with protecting its officers from what — a bit of embarrassment?

If you’re worried about resistance from police unions to amending the LEOBR, remember this: The LEOBR was enacted by the General Assembly in 1974 to strip former Baltimore Police Commissioner Donald Pomerleau of the unilateral power to purge corrupt officers from the BDP.

Pomerleau’s quest to end the corruption that was rampant in the BPD when he took over in 1966 was unpopular among many officers — and among some politicians. Ask yourself: Do you believe that the constraints on the ability of recent commissioners to get rid of corrupt officers have been a good thing or a bad thing?

Fixing the problems with the disciplinary system of the BPD requires action by the General Assembly and leadership by the governor. Governor Hogan, if you are re-elected in the fall, I have some good news for you: This is one thing that you can do for the city that won’t cost a dime.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state’s attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

[Published as an op-ed by The Baltimore Sun on July 31, 2018 but not posted to my blog until October 25, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

Time for Democrats and other voters in Baltimore County to get behind Johnny O.

Having eked out the narrowest of victories for the Democratic nomination for Baltimore County Executive, John Olszewski, Jr. deserves the enthusiastic support of Democrats who backed his opponents in the primary election. Mr. Olszewski has a sound and forward-looking vision for Baltimore County that offers county residents their best hope of achieving a much-needed change in both the substance and style of county government.

During the primary campaign, Mr. Olszewski was the only candidate willing to acknowledge that Baltimore County should consider imposing a development impact fee or excise tax on builders to take the burden of paying for the public facilities needed to support new development off local property and income tax revenues. His stance took courage in a tax-adverse county with too many residents who recognize the need to improve the county’s infrastructure but who refuse to accept a role in helping pay for the improvements.

In February, the county’s Spending Affordability Committee reported that the county is facing a decision: Either increase taxes or cut back on its plans to replace aging and run-down facilities, most notably county schools. During the administration of the late Kevin Kamenetz the county ran the budgetary equivalent of a pyramid scheme, relying on taxes from new development to make ends meet.

Not only did that approach drive dubious land use decisions, it set the timer on a fiscal time bomb. As the pace of development slows, which it will, the county will come under increasing financial pressure. It is a problem without easy answers that will take courage and strong leadership to solve. “Business as usual” in Baltimore County won’t work; as pointed out by the Spending Affordability Committee, the county cannot afford to replace schools and other facilities that need replacing unless revenues are increased.

Mr. Olszewski also understands that creating more access to affordable housing is a key to the county’s future well-being. Land use and other policies that promote the creation of pockets of poverty will be the ruination of the county in the same way that it was the ruination of the City of Baltimore. The failure to prohibit landlords in the county from categorically refusing to accept federal Section 8 housing vouchers has redlined neighborhoods in the county as effectively as the refusal of banks to lend money in neighborhoods with “undesirable racial concentrations” redlined neighborhoods in the city decades ago.

Again, it took courage for Mr. Olszewski to come out in favor of the so-called HOME Act, which would prohibit county landlords from categorically refusing to accept Section 8 vouchers. The thing that many county residents seem to fear most (even more than an increase in taxes) is the out-migration of poor black families from the city to the county. Out-migration is going to occur; the only question is whether it continues to result in the expansion of the existing pockets of poverty in the county.

Supporters of State Senator Jim Brochin were suspicious of Mr. Olszewski’s commitment to ending the pay-to-play culture that dominated county government over the past two administrations and was elevated to an art form by Mr. Kamenetz. Developers contributed to Mr. Olszewski’s campaign and he is, after all, the son of former County Councilman John Olszewski, Sr., a charter member of the county’s good old boys’ club. Those suspicions did not go away when it became clear that Mr. Olszewski was the primary beneficiary of attack ads aimed at Mr. Brochin and paid for by pro-development interests, including a slate fund controlled by former County Executive Jim Smith.

I have no problem with developers having seats at the table; they should. The problem under the Kamenetz administration was that a select group of developers and their lawyers owned the table, and ordinary citizens and community groups seldom were invited to sit at it. Until proven otherwise, I will take Mr. Olszewski at his word that ordinary citizens no longer will be closed out of major decisions in the county and I believe that other voters should do so as well.

During his campaign, Mr. Olszewski repeatedly stressed his intention to make county government open, transparent and accessible, something sorely needed in Towson. Mr. Kamenetz ran what certainly was the least open, transparent and accessible local government in Maryland. Understanding that knowledge is power, Mr. Kamenetz and his appointees withheld as much information as possible from citizens, especially when that information could be used to oppose the interests of one of his favored developers. Compliance with the Maryland Public Information Act ranged from dreadful to non-existent.

The fact that Councilwoman Vicki Almond, the candidate favored by developers and the heir apparent to Mr. Kamenetz as the nominal head of the Democratic machine in Baltimore County (under the supervision of Jim Smith, of course), received less than 32% of the vote in the Democratic primary was a clear statement by Democratic voters that they are fed up with the culture of soft corruption in Towson and want a significant change in the way that their county government is run. I believe that Mr. Olszewski understands what the voters want and will provide that change.

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Leadership style also is important, and I believe that Mr. Olszewski’s general affability and inclusive style will serve him and the citizens of the county well. It certainly will be a refreshing change from the imperiousness of the Kamenetz administration in which intimidation was used to suppress public debate and overcome opposition to the county executive’s proposals.

As an aside, Mr. Olszewski called me the day before the primary election to discuss a post that I wrote suggesting that, based on poll results showing Mr. Brochin in the lead and Mr. Olszewski well behind, a vote for Mr. Olszewski was tantamount to a vote for Ms. Almond. I knew that Mr. Brochin’s lead over Ms. Almond was shrinking because of the barrage of attack ads against him.

For purposes of the Democratic primary, I was firmly in the ABV camp – anyone but Ms. Almond. I viewed the fact that there were two excellent candidates running against her – Mr. Olszewski and Mr. Brochin – to be as much a curse as a blessing, worried that they would split the “reform” vote and allow Ms. Almond’s developer buddies to retain control of the county.

During our conversation, Mr. Olszewski good-naturedly told me that I was in for a surprise on election day and took the time to explain why he believed he would win. He didn’t confront me or chastise me for my post; he just talked to me, and we had a pleasant discussion about the race. I have been around way too long to form conclusions based on a single conversation, but I liked his attitude: Politicians who recognize that people who do not entirely agree with or support them should not be treated as enemies are in short supply nowadays.

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Although this post began with a message to Democratic voters who supported Mr. Olszewski’s opponents in the primary, my message to Republicans and independents is the same: Baltimore County is at a crossroads and desperately needs new ideas and fresh leadership. The Republican candidate for County Executive, Al Redmer, Jr. is a solid candidate who has some good ideas, including establishing a county Office of Inspector General, but he is less a leader than a manager.

Mr. Redmer may appeal to voters who don’t want the county to change or want it to go back to the way it was twenty or thirty years ago, but that is not going to happen. Change is inevitable in the county, and the only question is how well the county will prepare for and adjust to it. In my opinion, Mr. Olszewski is the candidate best suited to tackle the difficult tasks ahead and to move the county forward.