Office of Civil Rights Becomes Independent Agency in Baltimore
|thenorthstar||May 31, 2019|
In a move that is being widely praised by all sectors of the legal and Civil Rights community in Baltimore, Mayor Jack Young has made the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) an independent entity. As a standalone agency, the Baltimore Office of Civil Rights — which includes a board tasked with police oversight — will be perceived as legitimate following years of interdepartmental scandal.
The agency was formerly under the purview of the City Solicitor’s Office and was subject to numerous complaints about a perceived lack of objectivity. The office was also accused of being subject to undue influence from the city attorneys and board members who investigate police misconduct. Young stated that he wanted to take this step while city council president during the administration of former Mayor Catherine Pugh, according to the Baltimore Sun.
The Office of Civil Rights has a broad mandate and consists of four separate but interrelated entities: the Community Relations Commission, the Civilian Review Board, the Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities, and the Wage Commission. The Community Relations Commission enforces Article IV of the city code, which prohibits discrimination in areas of employment, education, public accommodations, housing, health and welfare services on the basis of race, class, gender, disability, or sexuality. It also has subpoena power, can hold public hearings, issue cease and desist orders, and take unresolved cases to the city court system. The Wage Commission enforces the local minimum wage, the living wage, and the prevailing wage for the city each year. The Civilian Review Board (CRB) is tasked with addressing citizen complaints of abusive language, mistreatment, harassment, false arrest or imprisonment, and excessive force by law enforcement, according to the office’s website.
The CRB is no stranger to controversy and will likely benefit the most of the other agencies from this rearrangement. The board has had a history of contentious relationships and conflicts of interest with the city’s law department. City attorneys represented the board and police in numerous cases of alleged misconduct and other matters before the Civilian Review Board. State Senator Jill Carter, who previously directed the OCR, called the conflicts of interest "shenanigans" that “were a disservice to the victims of police abuse as well as the staff and board,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
Carter reluctantly stepped down as director in 2018 after being informed that her appointment as a state Senator constituted a conflict of interest, and was unlikely that she could fulfill both roles simultaneously. Carter’s resignation was opposed by members of the board, and the city’s Community Relations Commission wrote to then-Mayor Catherine Pugh calling for Carter’s reinstatement. Members argued Carter’s reinstatement was essential to the integrity of the board’s mission and her departure would be a blow to a board desperately in need of stable leadership. Pugh did not agree with the assessment, which was widely condemned by police transparency groups and the ACLU.
Pugh placed the Civilian Review Board under the control of City Solicitor Andre Davis, who repeatedly clashed with board members on a range of legal issues. Initially, he tried to get CBC members to sign confidentiality agreements. After they refused to comply, citing excessive overreach, Davis directed the police department to withhold information, including personnel files and case files that were under review. The board members filed a lawsuit against the city and Davis eventually rescinded his demand for the confidentiality statements. The board withdrew its lawsuit, according to the Baltimore Sun.
The CBC’s new director, Darnell Ingram — a corporate attorney and former senior director of Strategic Sourcing and Contracts at Georgetown University — assumed office last November and has big plans for the office. He understands the critical linkages between social and economic justice for Baltimore’s diverse communities, according to his official city bio. He favors outreach to and cooperation with the various departments in Baltimore City government to achieve inclusion and broad representation. He hopes to be a catalyst for substantive discussions of racial and economic justice.
The change not only moves the needle forward on those issues but promises to usher in a new era of public engagement and a less acrimonious relationship between the legal department and Baltimore’s Office of Civil Rights.
About the Author
Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.