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City Of Baltimore To Create Publicly-Accessible Police Brutality Lawsuit Database

from the and-all-it-took-was-an-outside-investigation dept

There's not much information symmetry when it comes to the public and their public servants. The public is routinely required to turn over all sorts of personal information, but their governments are rarely willing to return the favor. In particular, police departments tend to be very tight-lipped when it comes to details of officer misconduct or abuse. Most departments are more than willing to provide in-depth crime stats detailing wrongdoing by citizens, but when asked to turn the magnifying glass on themselves, the details provided are, at best, questionable.

We'll almost always know when police officers are shot at, but without issuing a deluge of FOIA requests, we'll never really know how often police officers shot at citizens. Nearly every police website contains a link to a memorial page dedicated to officers killed in the line of duty, but it takes crowdsourced, completely independent efforts to put together statistics on citizens killed by police officers.

The US Attorney's office is supposed to be gathering statistics on excessive force but, for the most part, it has completely washed its hands of this duty. It has allowed a mandatory requirement to become completely voluntary, with law enforcement agencies who do bother to participate providing incomplete and questionable statistics.

The cities that oversee these agencies aren't much better at demanding accountability -- even cities who spend millions of dollars every year paying settlements to citizens harmed by police misconduct and abuse. Worse, cities who do have plenty of evidence that points to a culture of abuse within their law enforcement agencies are willing to spend millions of tax dollars fighting to keep this documentation secret.

The city of Baltimore is looking to become the exception to the rule.

Baltimore officials will begin this month posting the outcomes of all civil lawsuits alleging police brutality and will reconsider their policy of requiring plaintiffs to keep silent after settlements are reached…

City Solicitor George Nilson, who enacted the new policy regarding police settlements and court judgments, said officials also would seek to provide increased training for officers who are most often cited in lawsuits.
This new openness appears to have been prompted by the Baltimore Sun's investigation of the city's police force.
Nilson said the moves were made in response to The Sun investigation, which showed the city has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct.
While this is a good move on the city's part, the fact that it took an outside investigation to force this openness is still somewhat disheartening. That the city seemed unaware of how much it was spending to settle police-related lawsuits is disheartening as well. This doesn't say much for the city's financial oversight. Nor does it say much for police oversight, as the report notes that the PD's internal tracking of officers accused of misconduct and abuse is just as lax. Apparently, no one in either group had any idea how much was being spent or how many repeat offenders were involved until the Baltimore Sun pointed it out.

This new database, which will be publicly accessible, adds more transparency to the police department and the city itself.

And there's even more transparency on the way. The city council gave preliminary approval for outfitting police officers with body cameras. Baltimore's mayor, however, (Stephanie Rawlings-Blake) is fighting this bill, claiming it's "illegal" -- something that seems at odds with her general push for transparency elsewhere. On the bright side, she has approved the expansion of the PD's Internal Affairs division and given the police commissioner more power to "punish rogue officers." How this will actually play out remains to be seen (expanding power within police departments usually results in more efficient wagon-circling, rather than greater accountability), but these are all moves in the right direction.

Baltimore's move towards better police accountability is one more cities should emulate. And they should do it proactively, rather than waiting for the local media to force the issue. If police departments want to foster better relationships with the public, they need to be more willing to share the details on what they've done wrong. Knowing that every abuse of power may make its way into the public eye is a useful deterrent. And if the public knows who the repeat offenders are, those on the inside can no longer claim ignorance -- which leads to better accountability.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Nov 2014 @ 4:01pm

    The US Attorney's office is supposed to be gathering statistics on excessive force but, for the most part, it has completely washed its hands of this duty. It has allowed a mandatory requirement to become completely voluntary, with law enforcement agencies who do bother to participate providing incomplete and questionable statistics.

    How does that work exactly? How does the enforcement arm of the government get to ignore laws with impunity? Is there no one to enforce laws on the enforcers? Where are the consequences?

    Seriously, how the fuck does this work? Can someone explain?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 24 Nov 2014 @ 4:30pm

      I think you explained it yourself.

      The enforcement of the law is by a system that is supposed to check itself, ergo the term internal affairs which works entirely on the honor system, and they have an incentive to keep the numbers of reported incidents low.

      So other terms than can be invoked: perverse incentive and moral hazard.

      If men were angels, no government would be necessary.
      -- James Madison, saying "I told you so."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Nov 2014 @ 5:38pm

      Re:

      How does the enforcement arm of the government get to ignore laws with impunity?
      In the same way a question can be a tautology.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Nov 2014 @ 11:52pm

      Re:

      IT's called legal abuse. Those in power abusing the law for their own ends.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 25 Nov 2014 @ 7:50am

      Re:

      Police and prosecutors are in a symbiotic relationship. Prosecutors want to get re-elected. They need the police to find the cause celebre to get them headlines in the news.

      The last thing prosecutors want is anybody noticing that their partners might be the people they should be focusing their efforts on. That would tend to bring their own actions into disrepute.

      Transparency is a necessary feature to stop this disgraceful clubbish abuse and to keep it stopped. They are supposed to be serving and protecting us, not padding their empires while using us as cannon fodder.

      Bravo Baltimore Sun. Next up, the mayor's office. Who's she hanging around with nowadays, and why's she trying to help the police cover up their dirty laundry? Why's she so afraid of transparency?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 24 Nov 2014 @ 4:17pm

    Still ignoring the main problem

    City Solicitor George Nilson, who enacted the new policy regarding police settlements and court judgments, said officials also would seek to provide increased training for officers who are most often cited in lawsuits.

    If a given officer is being listed in multiple lawsuits over misconduct and abuse of authority/power, then the 'training' they should be getting is 'Have fun finding a job elsewhere', followed by a swift kick out the doors.

    If they continue to abuse their positions after the first lawsuit, and reprimand/'re-training', then what makes the ones running the police think more training is going to help? They clearly aren't getting it, and as such should be shown the door and replaced with someone who can understand and follow the rules.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Nov 2014 @ 4:41pm

      Re: Still ignoring the main problem

      Being in the insurance industry - and specializing in public entity/municipal insurance pooling... I can tell you that this "training" is for Risk Avoidance, or Risk Management purposes.

      IOW: it's mandatory training to avoid costly liability claims from being filed.

      It is the first step toward reducing claim losses which cost the pool (made up of many cities/counties/districts - each with various departments including Law Enforcement).

      What ultimately happens is that after several years of high claims losses, each member of the pool's performance is compared to others - via experience modifiers and loss ratios (a comparison total claims vs total payroll for example, sometimes budget). Those members with higher exmods and/or loss ratios are punished by paying higher premiums. If that still doesn't solve the problem, remedial measures are taken to "help" the member reduce their claims.

      Ultimately, members who can't get it right are kicked out of the pool and forced to find insurance elsewhere at a much higher price. This obviously chews into budgets and taxpayer funds.

      By the time you see "training", you know it's already bad - and the pool is getting fed up with it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Nov 2014 @ 5:52pm

        Re: Re: Still ignoring the main problem

        Is the quality or nature of the "training" usually overseen by any independent group or the insurers, and is there any public accountability? I would imagine the insurance companies involved have no obligation to expose their business records, outside of tax information.

        In other words, do members of the pool ever try "training" that consists of nothing more than having an individual sign a piece of paper that says "Yup, I got trained," with a smiley face & a shiny gold star stuck to it?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 26 Nov 2014 @ 11:17am

          Re: Re: Re: Still ignoring the main problem

          The pool's job is to reduce insurance costs for all members - so it is certainly in their interest to do whatever they can to actually train people to reduce claims. Having them sign a piece of paper would be a waste of time and resources, and certainly nobody would seriously believe that will cut costs.

          There's only so much that can be done from the insurance pool's perspective. Raising rates and premiums only goes so far. They can offer discounts if the officers attend training as an incentive.. ultimately they can deny them insurance entirely, but this usually requires a board vote (where the board is made up of representatives of the membership itself).

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Nov 2014 @ 1:36am

    Good theory, but in practice...

    ...this effort will inevitably be undercut by the corruption that is endemic to Baltimore city government. Previous mayor Sheila Dixon was forced to resign as part of a plea deal when she was caught embezzling -- and that was hardly her only transgression. The city jail is run by a coalition of gang members and correction officers who've been paid off. The school board has hosted a parade of members who've misused funds and been forced out. And so on.

    So this reporting system will tread the same path: the contracts associated with it will be given to those who curry favor. It'll cost way too much. It'll be delivered years late. It won't work very well. Data import will be erratic and some of it will be conveniently lost. Complainers will be targeted for vicious police retaliation. And so on.

    Baltimore police are vastly more concerned with maintaining their power than actually addressing serious/violent crime, which is why The Lexington Market (a longstanding city venue) is now Crack/Meth/Heroin Dealer Central and why the University of Maryland Medical School is in a war zone. (The only good news is that the ER is right down the street.) Watch: if protests supporting Ferguson materialize in Baltimore, they'll spend all kinds of money and overtime on those...while, elsewhere, the rapes and assault and drive-by shootings continue.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Nov 2014 @ 6:38am

      Re: Good theory, but in practice...

      Very interesting analysis, thanks. I marked as insightful.

      If you were in charge, what would you do to fix these problems?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        tqk (profile), 25 Nov 2014 @ 8:12am

        Re: Re: Good theory, but in practice...

        If you were in charge, what would you do to fix these problems?

        Eternal vigilance. The greedy and power hungry gravitate towards situations which they can milk for their daily fix. Realize that and you'll know you have to have spotlights shining on the process at all times, else it will be abused.

        Time after time after time stories like this show up and everybody cheers that we've found and stopped yet another one. You'd think our immune system might have built up resistance to the disease by now. Or, maybe people ought to be signing up for Baltimore Sun subscriptions, to encourage more efforts along these lines. We could also use the opportunity to tell CNN and MSNBC why we're not re-upping with them, because the Baltimore Sun is clearly more our kind of people.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Just Another Anonymous Troll, 25 Nov 2014 @ 7:21am

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
    Apparently, they watch themselves.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Nov 2014 @ 8:36am

    "officers who are most often cited in lawsuits"

    instead of just tracking their behavior, why not fire them?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    some guy, 25 Nov 2014 @ 9:26am

    From what I have heard on the radio and read in the paper, the mayor is trying to take a better approach to the bodycam issue. the council seems to pass a bunch of proposals with no thought on how to implement them. What they passed was very broad in definition. The same council passed a ban on plastic grocery bags when the original discussion was a tax on them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 25 Nov 2014 @ 11:40am

      Re:

      the council seems to pass a bunch of proposals with no thought on how to implement them.

      They're elected politicians. Their job is policy, not technical details. You hire trained and knowledgable specialists to implement the policies.
      The same council passed a ban on plastic grocery bags when the original discussion was a tax on them.

      Good choice. Somebody tried a money grab, and they turned it around on them and saved the landfills from filling with stuff which shouldn't be in them. That's thinking deeper than a pane of glass.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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