State Sen. Jill Carter (D-41st District) speaks at a press conference at City Hall. Photo via Baltimore Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement.

Baltimore’s civil rights office, including its Civilian Review Board that handles complaints of police misconduct, will once again be its own independent agency “effective immediately,” Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young ordered today.

In 2018, Catherine Pugh moved the Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement under the purview of the city’s Law Department, helmed by City Solicitor Andre Davis.

CRB members, the ACLU of Maryland and police-transparency advocates complained right away, arguing it made the board less effective and posed a conflict of interest to have city attorneys simultaneously representing police-abuse plaintiffs and the cops they were accusing.

“Both the CRB and residents complain that the Law Department could not, in cases of charges brought by the CRB against police officers, serve as counsel for both the plaintiff and the defendant,” Young said at City Hall this morning. “This moves seeks to eliminate any perception of conflict[s] of interest in these matters.”

In addition to the Civilian Review Board, the office also includes the Community Relations Commission, the Wage Commission and the Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities.

Young thanked Davis, a former federal appellate judge who Pugh tapped to be Baltimore’s chief attorney in 2017, for his department’s work overseeing the Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement, and noted the Law Department helped beef up the office by adding more investigators to its staff.

However, he stopped short of saying Davis gave his blessing for the change. The solicitor did not respond to Young when the mayor informed him of his plans, Young said. “The response should have been, Mr. Mayor, I support your move.” But, he said, “I didn’t get a response. It was moved.”

A staffer who answered the phone in Davis’ office Tuesday said he was not in; we’ve left a message seeking comment.

ACLU of Maryland senior staff attorney David Rocah said Young’s change is an “excellent and overdue reversal of an extremely misguided decision.”

Still, he’s waiting on city officials to free up the Civilian Review Board to get its own independent counsel to subpoena police and other legal actions. Even before Pugh brought the civil rights office into the Law Department, the same conflict of interest was already in play: city attorneys representing both sides–the board and police–in reviews of alleged police misconduct and related matters.

“That was one of many ways in which the Civilian Review Board has been sort of hobbled from the beginning,” Rocah said.

Young was joined by state Sen. Jill Carter (D-41st District), who helmed the civil rights office from late 2016 through May of 2018. Carter noted her presence wasn’t a sign of any impending return to city government—Davis informed her in 2018 that state law prohibits her from holding jobs as both senator and director of the agency, which is why she stepped down in the first place—but said she was there to support Young’s change, calling it a “courageous and correct decision.”

“During my tenure, it’s not a secret that there were instances of conflicts of interest with the Baltimore Police Department and the Civilian Review Board, and the inherent conflict of interest of the city solicitor representing both entities,” she said. “Those shenanigans were a disservice to the victims of police abuse as well as the staff and board.”

CRB chair Bridal Pearson said “we greatly support righting this wrong that was done, basically, to the community members who face constant police misconduct.”

The board, comprised of 10 members (two of those spots remain vacant), investigates complaints of excessive force, false arrest, abusive language and other types of misconduct and brutality. Created by state law in 1999, it’s supposed to function a civilian oversight body that can hold officers accountable for misconduct.

But the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2016 report on the police department highlighted the need for a stronger CRB. Investigators wrote that over time, the board’s role “has been diminished by severely limited investigative resources, inconsistent complaint referrals from BPD, and the City’s failure to fill the Board’s seats.”

And while the board has since filled most of those spots, it’s also clashed with Davis’ office. Nearly a year ago, members balked when the solicitor asked them to sign confidentiality agreements to prevent them from sharing details about complaints and cases with the public. Davis dropped the effort after several months, albeit while noting members could face legal action if they did leak officers’ confidential records to the public.

That same month, CRB members retained their own private attorney and sued the police department to force it to turn over records from dozens of cases. Their attorney said police had been ignoring subpoenas for files.

The CRB dropped its suit within weeks after Davis stepped in and said they couldn’t hire their own private attorney.

Young said he’s wanted to reverse Pugh’s move folding the CRB’s parent agency into the Law Department since he was council president.

“It should have always been separate,” he said. He added, “this decision was always in the back of my mind that it was gonna be separate. And when I became mayor, it was one of the first things I wanted to do.”

Carter said independence is crucial to the integrity of investigations into police abuse, wage theft and more.

“The office in many cases is all that victims of discrimination have in Baltimore City,” she said. “People must be able to trust that their claims will be fairly and vigilantly investigated, and that decisions made with integrity and without conflict or political influence.”

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...