Advocating for the most vulnerable in our community must be the core mission of the city’s Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement, according to Kisha Brown, the new director. This, she says, is a task which requires creative thinking and greater community engagement.
Brown came to the position in February after serving two years as director of civil rights for former Attorney General Doug Gansler. The Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement can be thought of as consisting of three divisions, says Brown, consisting of the Wage Enforcement Commission (charged with enforcing the minimum, living, and prevailing wage laws of Baltimore City), the Community Relations Commission (which oversees various types of discrimination complaints, such as gender, race, age, or sexuality), and the Civilian Review Board (which oversees complaints against the police).
“The great thing about all three is that their mandates are fairly wide, so it’s not one thing that you’re only allowed to focus on,” said Brown. “For example, the Community Relations Commission has the opportunity to study race relations in the city, and to do surveys, and to promote X, Y, and Z . . . so for me . . . it’s really about how we can be impactful in the community.”
Empower, educate, and enforce are the three pillars that will inform the work of the office, said Brown, who wants to serve New Director Says Office of Civil Rights Must Be Effective Voice as a gauge for elected officials of the city’s temperature related to civil rights issues, as well as a font of creative and proactive solutions.
For Brown, one of the biggest civil rights issues facing Baltimore City is the problem of police-community relations, which she described as “estranged at best, and powder kegish at worst.” Addressing that relationship will require an explicit understanding of how race has and continues to shape Baltimore City.
“If you’re in Baltimore City and you are not aware of the history of race relations, and therefore its legacy, you won’t be able to understand how to bridge gaps [between the police and the community] and how to move forward,” said Brown.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and Internal Affairs chief Rodney Hill have already contacted her to find ways to start working together. Brown says collaboration will be key if a problem like police-community relations is going to be effectively addressed.
Creativity will also be necessary, and one idea Brown is considering is the establishment of a mediation program to resolve complaints between residents and officers. Such a program could serve as a voluntary alternative to the traditional complaint adjudication processes, which are more focused on potential officer discipline than conflict resolution per se.
“For me [the resident] the incentive is I get to confront the officer one on one, I get to feel like I’m heard, I’m empowered in the fact that I was active in the process and had my day,” said Brown. “For the officer, depending on how it’s designed, it could mean that there’s nothing that goes in their file, that they too have an opportunity to mend a relationship that maybe was unnecessarily broken in the community that they have to go back to, because ultimately you want to have people in the community who know you and respect you.”
Because most investigations by the Civilian Review Board or Internal Affairs result in a complaint not being sustained – something Brown is currently examining – the community has ceased to trust the process, requiring alternatives and potentially creating an incentive for something like the mediation idea.
Brown is also working on improved processes for keeping tabs on whether the city’s living and prevailing wage laws are being followed by employers with city contracts. This task has been hobbled in the past by the office’s finite resources and the fact that reviewing payrolls to ensure compliance has fallen to the office itself, when the law mandates it be conducted by the contracting agencies. This has to change if the office is truly going to be a voice for the vulnerable in Baltimore City.
“Our most vulnerable are disproportionately people of color, poor people, and that’s what our city looks like. I want to be that office that advocates on behalf of the most vulnerable to get paid right, to be free from police harassment, to be safe in their communities, to be safe at work, and those are some of the fundamentals that will allow our city to grow and prosper,” said Brown.