Collaborating with killer cops? Angry Baltimoreans school DOJ official on city police tactics

Crowd jeers Department of Justice collaboration with city cops

Nothing exciting will happen tonight, according to Shorty.

"Look around," Duane "Shorty" Davis says as the vast hall begins to fill up (it never gets to more than about half of its capacity). "These are elderly people. They're not scared of police brutality; they're scared of black-on-black crime!"

Shorty should know: He is ubiquitous at protests, meetings, and any other gathering where the subject of court-sanctioned injustice or police brutality might be on the agenda. His "toilet bowl bomb"—not a bomb but a regular toilet, posted with fliers—is at least as famous as his barbecue.

The double-sized gym at Coppin State University's Athletic Center could seat 350 or 400, with lots of standing room. It plays host tonight to the first Department of Justice public forum—the first glimpse many will have into the work the federal government is doing to reform the Baltimore City Police Department.

Police Commissioner Anthony Batts asked for the review last fall after The Sun's Mark Puente published a series of stories examining the civil lawsuits against police officers. He found dozens of people who had been beaten; the city paid nearly $6 million to settle the cases, but most everything was sealed under the legal settlements that forbid plaintiffs to say anything about the settlement. High-profile police-custody deaths like Anthony Anderson's and Tyrone West's, plus a steady stream of new videos and allegations of police misconduct (the lastest just this week when Freddie Gray ended up in a coma and with a broken back after an encounter with bicycle police), have kept pressure on the department and other city officials to show progress toward reform. This is not easy.

First District City Councilman Robert Kraft strides over. "I wasn't invited," he says. "I'm the chair of the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations committee. Brandon Scott was not invited and he's head of the Public Safety Committee. Who is that guy?"

Kraft gestures to a man talking at several TV cameras. He is Robert Chapman, deputy director of the Department of Justice's COPS—Community Oriented Policing Services—office, who appears to be straight from central casting: a middle-aged white man in a jacket and tie, speaking in kind and patient platitudes. This is his meeting.

Using words like "proactive" and "concerns," the basic story Chapman tells is of cooperation. The program he's running is called the "Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance." It involves training and best practices, cultural competency and workshops, and "reaching out to the community." At base it assumes that the department to be reformed is packed with professionals of good faith, all of them eager and ready to learn new things and trade in their ever-so-slightly-less-than-best practices for The Best. Chapman speaks from a dais into a public address system that bounces his words off the hard surfaces in the huge gym, turning them into a mush. "I think the transparency that was involved with this," Chapman says, "tells us that there is power in public opinion."

To many in the crowd, it sounds like pabulum. They don't want collaboration. They don't want, in the words of the COPS flier, "a proactive, non-adversarial, and cost-effective form of technical assistence." They want prosecution of killer cops.

The first speaker was a retired paramedic and U.S. Marine Corps veteran named Aubrey Knox. "All you have to do is set up a civilian review board," he says. "With a proper civilian review board, police are afraid."

In 2012, Knox received a $500,000 settlement from the city to settle charges that police falsely arrested him and his wife. The couple was charged with kidnapping their own grandchild, and Knox was put in a jail cell in Central Booking that was later filled with gang members who, he says, were arrested by the same officers who had falsely arrested him. The gangsters beat Knox, then 55 years old, so badly that he lost a kidney. He believes that the cops and gang members were in cahoots, and that the police department has a "hit squad" that retaliates against people who file complaints for excessive force. "I want you to see my face," Knox tells Chapman, who is flanked by a few other police experts. "So when I go home tonight, if I don't make it, you'll know." He leaves immediately.

People line up six and eight deep in front of two microphones to give their two minutes of testimony. The speakers bring a mix of anger and crazy.

David Anthony Wiggins, a former candidate for sheriff, insists that there is "no statutory authority for the use of force by police," echoing the position of some self-proclaimed "Moorish Soveriegn Citizens." "How come you didn't contact me?" Wiggins demands. "I ran on a platform of ending police brutality!"

Chapman pledges to talk to him after the event.

"If you don't protect them, I will arm them and teach them how to protect themselves!" Wiggins proclaims, to general applause.

The Moors (who are mainly repudiated by the more mainstream Moorish Science Temples) believe that police and the state have no authority over them, because their special ancestery exempts them from U.S. law. Many spout a bogus legal analysis based on corporate law. Another apparent adherent speaking at the forum demands that Chapman explain to the crowd how the corporate code equals "chattel slavery."

Chapman responds blandly that he understands the law.

Others weave conspiracy theories holding that murderous cops, states' attorneys, medical examiners, and the mayor are all in on a vast genocidal cover-up. Family members of Tyrone West complain that they have not been interviewed. One woman cries.

"You're just here to support their cause," another tells Chapman. "We want the police arrested! Period!"

Others offer more plausible suggestions.

Brendan Hurson, a lawyer with the federal public defender's office, tells the panel that the secrecy surrounding department's internal affairs division is at the root of the problem. "The judiciary treats it like a personnel record. It's completely privileged," he says. "There are police with 30, 40, even 50 complaints against them. You can look at those files; we can't."

Others call for changes in the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which allows police up to 10 days after an incident before they are required to give a statement to internal investigators. A bill to reform the LEO Bill of Rights did not pass the state legislature this year.

Michael McCormick, a Coppin student who says he is a former police officer, points out that he has only 90 days to file an excessive force complaint against Baltimore officers. "In New York City you get 18 months," he says, "and when you make a complaint they give you a number so you can track the case. None of that is available here."

By the meeting's scheduled end time, at 8 p.m., they are still lined up, some taking three or four minutes as Chapman gently appeals to their sense of "respect for those still waiting to speak."

David and Latisha Rodriguez, subject to a police raid in June of 2009 in which David was pinned to the floor and beaten by a sergeant while another officer watched, say they want the Justice Department to file a civil rights action against the officers. "Do your job," David Rodriguez says, pointing at Chapman.

He calls the next speaker. "We're here to listen," Chapman says.

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