The Maryland Senate on Thursday night brought the state a step closer to a repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a decades-old statute that critics say has been one of the biggest obstructions to holding police accountable for wrongdoing.
Lawmakers still must work out some details before the measure lands on Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk. It is a key provision of a broader effort to reshape how officers across the state do their jobs, how they are trained and how they are investigated and disciplined. If Hogan signs off on the bill, Maryland would be the first state in the country to repeal its officers’ bill of rights.
The measure, which was approved on a 32-to-15 vote, would replace the law with a new bill of rights that creates a different process for imposing administrative charges against officers accused of misconduct, one that allows civilians to participate in the decision-making.
The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to three police measures. One would make certain police disciplinary records public; another would require police-involved fatalities to be investigated by an independent unit run by the state attorney general’s office; and the third takes steps toward returning the Baltimore Police Department to local control. A fourth bill, approved by the House Judiciary Committee and still awaiting action in the full House, would create a statewide use-of-force policy.
“Police are by establishment our public servants, all of our public servants, and we have ceded to them over our own laws and policies and over time too much power with lack of accountability,” said Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City).
Carter has pushed for revisions to police legislation, including changes to the bill of rights, for more than a decade.
“This bill does some critical things,” Carter said. “It allows us to allow our constituencies to participate in an open police disciplinary process. It removes a veil of secrecy.”
The package of bills would also create a scholarship program for officers, raise the civil liability limit on police-related lawsuits to $890,000, allow for — but not require — the forfeiture of a convicted officer’s pension, ban police departments from acquiring surplus military equipment, restrict no-knock warrants and mandate police-worn body cameras by 2026.
The sweeping legislation comes in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the national outcry for police reform that followed.
Over the past month, debate over the bills has exposed a schism in the Democratic caucus, with left-leaning members complaining that the measures do not go far enough. It also laid bare the different realities of lawmakers deciding on the policies.
Before casting his vote, Sen. Malcolm L. Augustine (D-Prince George’s) told his colleagues of the fear he has as a Black man, a feeling he said is shared by many Marylanders. It is a reason, he said, the legislation is so vital.
Police “don’t see me as someone to protect, they see me as a threat,” he said. “They see me as someone to be afraid of. . . . Many of you have not had to feel when someone looks at you in your eye and thinks you are less than a person. But that is the experience that I have to live and the experience of so many Marylanders. The system is broken for too many Marylanders.”
Sen. Jack Bailey (R-St. Mary’s), a retired police officer, spoke of the honor of being in law enforcement.
“I’m concerned about my police family,” he said. “I’m concerned about the retention, the recruitment, the respect that is lost for the men and women of law enforcement. . . . Only the future will be the judge on whether this product is fair.”
Members of the General Assembly began holding hearings on the legislation over the summer, with the members of the Senate and the House of Delegates working on different pieces.
Over the past few days, leaders of the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee scaled back an omnibus bill proposed by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and consolidated nine bills introduced by senators into four measures.
One of the changes made during the process was to the proposed statewide use-of-force policy. The policy was struck from the speaker’s bill and added to a Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), that mandated body cameras. Under the original language, officers could use force only when necessary and use lethal force only as a last resort — to save lives or to prevent serious injury. Any nonlethal use of force would have to be viewed as necessary and proportional, a stricter requirement than the state’s current legal standard of “objectively reasonable.”
In a compromise, the current language says an officer may not use force against a person unless a police officer under similar circumstances would believe that the force is necessary and proportional to prevent an imminent threat or “effectuate a legitimate law enforcement objective.”
The bills were brought before the respective committees for discussion and moved to the Senate and House floors over the past two days.
The General Assembly ends its session April 12, and there is a chance that the legislature could send the package to Hogan (R) before session adjourns. The House assigned delegates to serve on a conference committee, but the Senate has yet to create one.
Republicans in both chambers have complained about the pace at which the bills were being passed.
“It’s been way too quick at the end with lots of changes for our citizens to even know what we’re really doing,” said Del. Lauren C. Arikan (R-Harford).
Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard), who led a House task force on police revisions, responded to some of the criticism on Twitter. She said legislators began discussing changes 10 months ago and heard from hundreds of witnesses, including victims’ families, police officers and experts about policing.
During six hours of debate late Wednesday night, Republican senators also repeatedly criticized the legislative process, arguing that Senate Democrats appeared to be capitulating to Jones, who prioritized police accountability legislation this year.
Similar arguments were made during a marathon committee hearing earlier in the week.
“Because the speaker of the House has indicated this bill is her baby, the Senate feels like we have to lie down and let her roll over us,” Sen. Christopher West (R-Baltimore County) told his colleagues on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
On Wednesday night, a motion was made to send the measure back to committee. A few Democrats agreed, but the motion failed, leading to the hours-long debate on the floor that ended at nearly 1 a.m. Thursday.
Twelve amendments were offered on the bill, including one that would have reduced the proposed new civil liability cap limit from $890,000 to $600,000 (the current limit is $400,000). Other amendments would have removed a requirement that officers pass a mental health assessment and a physical agility test and changed the discipline process that would have allowed the chief to have ultimate say over whether an officer should be administratively charged. Under the House bill, the chief could not impose discipline that is lower than what the administrative charging committee recommends.
Three amendments were approved, including one offered by Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick) that removed a requirement that an officer convicted of felony, perjury or another misdemeanor related to truthfulness and veracity would lose his or her pension. Another added language to ensure that an officer accused of wrongdoing is provided with the charges being filed against him.
Published at Fri, 02 Apr 2021 13:49:00 +0000