Keep On Pushing: Jill Carter continues to fight for civil rights

Last week, when Judge James K. Bredar announced that a planned hearing to allow Baltimore citizens to make public comment about the proposed consent decree would go on whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions liked it or not, Jill Carter wasn't surprised.

On Monday, April 3, the Justice Department attempted to put a 90-day pause on the decree, which would have meant that the hearing would be delayed, too. I called Carter the following Tuesday to get her thoughts. Carter, who has been director of the Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement since December, said that the consent decree already had too much momentum. Too many people in the city already wanted it and Mayor Catherine Pugh and other city leaders would not "turn their backs on the need for change," she said.

The decree is aimed at improving policing here in Baltimore and making the Baltimore police accountable to the federal government to enact changes.

It matters to Carter because portions of the decree call for improvements to Civilian Review Board, which falls under the Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement.

So Carter knew the hearing would happen, but she was also impatient for change to start, especially as it relates to civilian participation in the Baltimore Police Department. She pointed the case of seven Baltimore officers now facing federal racketeering charges.

"Those issues could have been addressed at a much earlier stage, had the Civilian Review Board been able to operate effectively," she said. "Those officers had prior allegations but nothing happened and that highlights the need for civilian oversight."

Her comments last week are consistent with what she told me back in January when I first sat down with her to talk about her new position. She'd recently resigned her seat in the Maryland House of Delegates to take on the job, appointed by Mayor Catherine Pugh. The television in the waiting room of her downtown office was playing an informational video about the life of Malcolm X. Her mood seemed to be one of cautious optimism.

The Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement has a wide scope. In addition to the Civilian Review Board, Carter's office must manage the Community Relations Commission and the Wage Commission. The Civilian Review Board is an independent agency dedicated to handling citizens' law enforcement-related complaints. The Community Relations Commission handles discrimination claims, and the Wage Commission makes sure that contractors doing business within the city of Baltimore do right by their employees in terms of paying them a fair living wage. You may not have heard of them because, Carter says, the office has traditionally been under-utilized and under-funded—Carter says that they currently have just 17 full-time employees on staff.

She went from Annapolis back to Baltimore because she doesn't "believe in lifetime politicians," she said back in January. "I don't believe that's supposed to be a job for life, even if you keep getting elected because you're popular and I believe I could've kept getting elected. But I put in 14 years, 14 hard years."

Since 2003, Carter had represented Baltimore's 41st District. After vacating the position, she was vocal about her support for Dayvon Love, of the grassroots think-tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, to replace her, but Bilal Ali, a community liaison in the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, was awarded the seat.

While she always had a passion for civil rights—one that began with her dad, civil rights activist Walter P. Carter—she was becoming less enthralled with the more mundane parts of legislation.

"I was very interested in policy, in shaping policy, in justice equality and fighting against discrimination," she said. "Being a voice for not just what people characterize as the voiceless, but the people that the legislative body intentionally didn't want to hear from. But . . . I also had to go to a lot of community meetings where we were talking about next door neighbors making too much noise, trash in the streets, and [how] we need speed bumps. You know, I can say now, I began to lose passion for those kinds of issues."

She is happy to be in her new position, but she's still adjusting.

"It is difficult to switch over, honestly, from Annapolis mindset," she said. "You don't realize it's that engrained in you, but 14 years is a long time."

Carter comes to the office at a time when the Civilian Review Board could get more power to implement real change, and when the city is working to enact changes suggested by the much-discussed consent decree. She and her staff are hopeful that means more attention for the office and more resources.

"The consent decree specifically calls for the putting together of a task force that will oversee and come up with recommendations for what the Civilian Review Board does. And when I read that I felt kind of ambivalent but now I feel optimistic," she said. "I was so impressed with the passion and the credentials of the investigators here with both the Civilian Review Board as well as the Community Relations Commission, and I then began to understand that the only impediments that we have are a product of being under resourced in the past, under-utilized in the past, and lack of authority under the initial Civilian Review Board statute."

She already knows what she'd like to change: "We have to be able to have independent investigations. People have to be able to trust that we aren't in collusion with police. We have to work with police cooperatively and collaboratively in order to get the information that we need for investigations, but I think people need to be assured that we are independent, we aren't an arm of the police department, and that we have the ability to give a thorough and complete investigation."

She's also looking to do away with a 90-day statute of limitations on police-related complaints, and a rule that those complaints need to be notarized by a notary public. Finally, she'd like to make sure that her office is able to get information from police in a timely manner.

"We don't want to wind up getting the information that we needed from the Baltimore Police Department to conclude our investigation two years after they've already made a final decision," she said. "I think there have been issues of communication in the past; I feel very positive that we are working to fix those problems to close those gaps that have existed. I have, since I've been here, met with Commissioner Davis as well as the chief of IAB (Internal Affairs Bureau) and both seem to be enthusiastic about helping us, helping us have greater authority. So at this point I have nothing but optimism about what we can do."

These are all issues that Kisha Brown, the office's last director, complained about when she spoke to City Paper last year. Some of those things will be changing very soon, thanks to legislation from Annapolis. Other improvements are in the works.

Carter is working to address the time lag problem by working directly with the police department's Office of Professional Responsibility.

"We began a series of meetings when I came on board to flesh out what we can improve on our own," she told me via email after our interview. "This year's legislation will correct those technical impediments regarding the statute of limitations and notary requirements. Next year, we intend to propose more meaningful changes to the statute that would increase the board's authority, relevance, and impact."

At a time when some might feel frustrated and hopeless about the possibility of changes to policing—The DOJ's attempt to slow down the consent review tells us all we need to know about how the government views it—Carter is hopeful.

"It's not ideal, and ideally the Obama administration would have more aggressively dealt with these issues in a timely way, but it didn't happen, so we all are where we are," she said.

According to Carter, many of the issues the city is grappling with are issues that lawmakers in Annapolis have been dealing with for a while. So, she thinks that the mayor and commissioner know the seriousness of these issues.

"Because of the consent decree and post-uprising, the political will has changed. I think awareness in society about policing issues has changed, and so we're at the perfect time for this agency to be adequately resourced and for this agency to be given adequate authority to be a true civilian oversight board," she said. "We didn't need the uprising or the death of Freddie Gray or those issues to know about the seriousness of the problem. So I think that Commissioner Davis comes in at a time when it's only acceptable to have a police commissioner who is committed to fixing these problems, these systemic problems. So I guess what I'm saying is that whether there is a consent decree or not, I believe that the commitment of the mayor is such that it has to happen in Baltimore City."

And Carter stressed that these issues won't just go away.

"We can't continue to exist without these changes being made with policing," she said. "With the current relationship and the past relationship of the last number of years, the rift between the community and police, it has to change. Otherwise no telling what could be in the future. We've already seen some of what could happen but it could be even worse. With the record number of homicides, the ever escalating number of homicides, all of that is inter-related to the broken relationship between the police department and the residents of Baltimore City. I believe that they are well-aware of that."

For now, what she'd really like is for the people of Baltimore to use her office as the resource it is.

"Seek us out. Refer aggrieved people to us, partner with us, and write grants," she said. "We've been under-utilized and under-resourced and I believe this is the time for that to turn."

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