Maryland Senate Passes Package Of Police Reform Measures
Maryland Senate Passes Package Of Police Reform Measures
The Maryland Senate gave final approval to a package of nine police reform measures Wednesday, including a bill to require all police departments to have body-worn cameras. The spate of reforms comes in the wake of last summer's protests over the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
If passed by the House and signed by Gov. Larry Hogan, the new legislation would transform how Maryland law enforcement agencies discipline officers and handle complaints.
Six of the bills passed unanimously, including measures to provide private mental health counseling to police officers, have the state's attorney automatically investigate police-involved deaths, block police departments from obtaining military-grade equipment, hand control of the Baltimore City Police Department back to the city and ban some no-knock warrants.
The other three bills make police disciplinary records publicly available, repeal parts of the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights and update laws on use of force policies. They passed along party lines, with Democrats voting in favor.
All the bills now head to the House floor where they face an even larger Democratic majority than they did in the Senate.
The bills' passage struck a personal note for Sen. Will Smith (D-Montgomery County), the chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and the descendant of an enslaved person who was raped by a slave owner.
"That slave owner's blood pulses through my veins," Smith told his colleagues. "Although the African American experience is not monolithic...we do have that shared heritage in the United States. This most latest iteration and this convulsion that happened over the summer and the reckoning we're going through now is just the latest time that this generation will have to deal with these issues."
Republican senators, like Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll Counties), said they were pleased with the level of bipartisan agreement on the bills.
"I'm very proud that [the committee] continued the strong tradition we've had of tackling some of the toughest issues...and putting out a quality bipartisan legislation," Hough said.
One of the more controversial pieces of legislation that passed along party lines is Anton's Law, named after Anton Black, a 19-year-old Black man who died in police custody on the Eastern Shore in 2018. The officer involved in his killing had 30 use-of-force reports filed against him during his career with police in Dover, Delaware. The bill would make officers' disciplinary records more available to the public.
Senate Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City), who sponsored the legislation, said complaints against officers are often dismissed without any disciplinary action being taken.
"What we found is that the very nature of the internal process of police policing, investigating, themselves has yielded to the findings of unfounded or unsubstantiated [claims]," Carter told her colleagues earlier in the week during debate on the chamber floor.
Some Republican and Democrat lawmakers took issue with a component of the bill that would make unsubstantiated complaints against officers publicly available, saying it could deter people from joining the police force.
Another controversial bill would amend use of force policies by expanding the definition of excessive force as "force that an objectively reasonable law enforcement officer would conclude exceeds what is necessary to gain compliance, control a situation or protect a law enforcement officer or others from harm, under the totality of the circumstances." It lays out what an officer should do when faced with an escalating situation, and outlines whistleblower provisions such as a possible 10-year prison sentence for officers who witness but fail to report use of force violations.
Sen. Charles Sydnor (D-Baltimore County and Baltimore City) broke from his party to vote against the bill.
"I believe that the definition that we use in use of force still needs some work," Sydnor said while explaining his vote to his colleagues. "A lot of us are voting believing that the use of force assumes that a reasonable police officer is someone who follows procedures, but unfortunately our courts have interpreted [this] in such a way that even an officer who doesn't follow procedure at times will still be deemed to have acted reasonably."
The third contentious piece of legislation would amend provisions in the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights (LEOBR), which lays out extensive job protections and due process requirements for officers facing allegations of misconduct. Maryland became one of the first states to enact LEOBR in 1974; over the years there has been gaining momentum to do away with it. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) have said they would like to see LEOBR repealed.
Instead of a full repeal, lawmakers put together a bill that lays puts disciplinary processes in the hands of each law enforcement agency's police chief. The chief would have the authority to impose disciplinary measures on an officer prior to a complaints investigation and appoint an officer and two civilians to a hearing board to investigate the claims. Currently, most hearing boards only have police officers on them.
Sen. Carter, who sponsored the original legislation, told the Baltimore Sun last month that the amendments to the bill "completely guts the concept of repeal" and called the final product "a smidgen of an improvement" over the existing Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights but "is no longer my bill." Still, Carter voted for the bill along with her Democratic colleagues.
Montgomery and Prince George's counties have witnessed multiple instances of police-involved deaths, misconduct and excessive use of force in recent years, as well as charges of discrimination.
In December 2019, Montgomery County police officer Kevin Moris was found guilty of assaulting a handcuffed suspect by driving his knee into the man's neck. Moris was sentenced to two years of probation.
In June 2020, a Silver Spring family accused Montgomery County Police of using excessive force while entering their home with a no-knock warrant. Later that fall, Prince George's County settled with the family of William Greene, who was fatally shot by police while handcuffed in the back of a squad car in January 2020.
The Prince George's County Police Department and Maryland State Police have been charged by officers of color with allegations of discrimination and racial harassment.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.
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