Rawlings-Blake says changes needed to Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights

By Luke Broadwater and Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun8:55 p.m. EDT, September 17, 2014

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake criticized the Police Department’s handling of a high-profile police brutality investigation on Wednesday, and said she had directed the police commissioner to develop a “comprehensive” plan to address brutality in the agency.

Speaking to reporters at City Hall, the mayor said top commanders should have quickly seen a video of an officer repeatedly punching a man, and should have moved immediately to take the officer off the street.

“It is outrageous,” Rawlings-Blake said of the conduct of the officer shown in the video, whom authorities have identified as Officer Vincent E. Cosom. “We have a situation where we know that video was held by the police, yet the people who needed to see it didn’t see it. That’s a problem.”

A police surveillance camera captured the incident on North Avenue the night it happened in June, and a department monitor flagged the footage, officials have said. Though prosecutors and detectives from internal affairs were aware of it, officials said, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said he didn’t see it until Monday — the day it was made public as part of a $5 million lawsuit filed against Cosom. Cosom remained on the job until he was suspended with pay Tuesday.

“It’s clear there is a bottleneck somewhere” that kept top officials from seeing the tape sooner, Rawlings-Blake said. “Everything I saw was a concern to me. It wasn’t handled right [during] the incident. It wasn’t handled right afterward. Either we don’t have the right procedures or they weren’t enforced. Either way, we have to do better.”

She said she was prepared to lead a charge to weaken Maryland’s police “Bill of Rights,” which some critics say is too protective of officers.

The law mandates that disciplinary actions against police go through a three-person trial board that makes decisions based on the preponderance of the evidence. Before the board’s decision, the police commissioner may suspend an officer without pay only if he or she is charged with a felony.

The law gives officers 10 days to get an attorney before they can be questioned by superiors, and lets the attorney strike members of the trial board hearing the case. Additionally, the law states an officer may not be investigated on a brutality accusation unless it was made within 90 days of the incident.

Several Baltimore lawmakers said they planned to seek changes to the law, but supporters of the act warned against sweeping changes that could undermine an officer’s rights.

Gene Ryan, vice president of the city police union, said the law simply gives an officer “his day in court.”

“She’s been giving it a bad rap. It’s a due process law,” Ryan said of the mayor. “If the investigation proves this officer was wrong in what he did, he should be punished. Let’s give him his chance first.”

Del. John W. E. Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican and former law enforcement officer, said diluting the bill of rights could lead to public officials firing officers for political reasons, not necessarily because the officer had done anything wrong. And Cluster said the bill of rights already allows for officers to be fired for even minor infractions if they reflect poorly on the Police Department.

He warned against changes that would give superiors “too broad of leeway to fire someone without giving them due process.”

The video footage from the North Avenue incident appears to show Cosom launching an unprovoked attack on a man named Kollin Truss at a bus stop. Cosom lands a series of blows on Truss.

Two other officers are seen in the video not intervening. Police identified those officers Wednesday evening as Officer Dominic Gerber, a five-year veteran with the department, and Officer Christopher Dunlap, a two-year veteran.

Batts has said he was shocked and outraged by the video. City prosecutors have said there is a criminal investigation into the matter, while police said they planned to present a case to a grand jury.

Cosom will continue to collect his paycheck while on leave. His base salary is $61,000; with overtime, he earned $69,000 last year.

“I thought it was very important that he be off the streets,” Rawlings-Blake said. “I’ve looked at [the video] several times. I’ve tried to figure out under what circumstances that was the right thing to do. I can’t figure it out. I don’t want to see this type of thing happen again.”

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, who chairs the city’s House delegation in Annapolis, said Baltimore’s lawmakers were eager to partner with the mayor on the effort to change the law. Anderson said some want to see the city’s Civilian Review Board granted more powers.

“Several of us have already been talking about taking a look at it,” he said. “The civilian review board doesn’t really have any teeth. It doesn’t require the mayor or the police commissioner to act in any specific way. They don’t have the ability to redress grievances. If people feel powerless that’s not a good thing for us.”

Del. Jill P. Carter has unsuccessfully submitted several bills in recent years to change the law, including one that would have forced police to post all disciplined officers’ names online along with their infractions. Another would eliminate the 10-day wait before an officer can be interrogated. Carter did win passage of a bill called “Christopher’s Law” — named after Baltimore County teen Christopher Brown, who was killed by an officer — that requires additional training of police.

“Yes, we need to reform the police officer’s Bill of Rights, not just because of this video but because of many incidents,” Carter said. “Maryland gives more rights to law enforcement officers than any state in the country.”

The mayor acknowledged that getting legislation passed could be difficult. “Whether or not I will be able to single-handedly get them passed in the legislature, I have no idea. But I’m willing to fight.”

News of the incident involving Cosom comes after Rawlings-Blake held a series of meetings with community members, in which many voiced concerns about police brutality.

“It’s very clear we need a comprehensive set of reforms to deal with the issue of police brutality and that’s what I have asked for from the police department,” she said. “We have some really, really good officers on the street. When something like this happens, it casts a cloud over all of those officers.”

Democrat Del. Steven J. DeBoy, a former Baltimore County officer, said he was moved watching the footage of the incident. “On paper, and on video, it looks terrible,” he said. “But let internal affairs do their job.”

He said the reasons for passing the police “Bill of Rights” 40 years ago apply today. “It’s very easy to make allegations in this occupation, because you’re always dealing with situations that go from zero to 10 in a matter of seconds.”

But DeBoy also said that the investigating eyewitness accounts decades ago was a much more time-consuming process than today, when video cameras are everywhere. In light of widespread videotaping, he said he would cautiously consider revamping pieces of the law. “With technology changing, maybe that’s something you take a look at,” DeBoy said.

Nina Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O’Malley, said he hoped the General Assembly would take a balanced approach if members consider changes to the law.

“It’s important to strike the right balance between punishing wrongdoers and ensuring there’s a fair process for everyone,” Smith said. “It’ll be up to the next General Assembly to evaluate whether that balance needs to be re-calibrated.”

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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