August 11, 2022

Maryland police reform: Lawmakers split on Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights

Instead, Democrats and Republicans on the panel spoke about body cameras, use-of-force policies and who should investigate police.

The panel is supposed to vote on recommendations next Thursday.

Advocates are calling for a full repeal of the statute, describing it as an impediment to accountability and transparency, while leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police say that the law “works well.”

“I don’t know if we’ll have to have a whole meeting on LEOBR if we don’t have a consensus by next week,” Atterbeary said in an interview before the start of the meeting.

Members of the panel have said privately that they are at loggerheads over whether to repeal the protections or replace them. They expect the issue to be one of the major battles facing lawmakers when they return to Annapolis in January.

Several cities and states across the country have taken a close look at policing in recent months, following protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. In Maryland, separate discussions are taking place in the House and the Senate.

“I think we have to ride the wave of this Black Lives Matter movement,” said Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and a member of the work group. “I don’t think we can have anything other than a full repeal.”

The law allows officers to wait five business days before they have to cooperate with internal inquiries about police misconduct. It also ensures that only fellow officers, not civilians, investigate police.

In addition to Maryland, 15 other states, including Delaware, Minnesota and California, have some type of a police bill of rights.

Several members of the panel have suggested that police officers should fall under the same statute that covers other government employees who are under investigation, which offers less robust protections. Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) suggested that the phrase “bill of rights” be stripped from the law to remove what he called a perception that police officers are being given special treatment.

Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) said the proposal to change the name of the statute was equivalent to putting “lipstick on a pig.”

Acevero, who has pushed for sweeping changes for the past three years, wants a complete repeal of the bill of rights and the creation of a statewide policy on the use of force by police. He also has proposed a law that requires officers to be decertified if they commit felonies or are involved in certain personnel incidents.

At the meeting on Thursday, there appeared to be some consensus on developing a statewide use-of-force policy; changing who investigates police officers accused of serious bodily injury or the death of an individual; and requiring mental health evaluations of officers every few years.

Most departments require a mental evaluation or assessment only when an officer is hired or has witnessed or been involved in a traumatic incident.

Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore City) said Maryland could pattern its use-of-force policy on one used by the Baltimore City police department. Anderson suggested that the state attorney general, instead of the county prosecutor’s offices, conduct an independent investigation of officers accused of serious crimes and said officers should be evaluated on their mental fitness every couple of years, just as they are assessed annually on their ability to use a gun.

The use-of-force policy, he said, must provide detailed parameters about when deadly force should be used, an officer’s duty to intervene and how and when to report misconduct. “There needs to be . . . not just a suggestion, but a bright line standard,” Anderson said.

The work group also appeared to agree that body cameras should be required by all police departments. A decision on who would have access to the footage, how long the footage would be stored and when the camera should be turned on are still up for discussion.

Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) said she supports mandating body cameras but worried about who would pay for them. She said the Harford County police department wants cameras but can’t afford them, and she suspects that other smaller agencies are in the same shape.

After Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore police custody in 2015, the legislature approved a set of changes. But advocates and most lawmakers say those did little to alter how officers are disciplined, expand the public’s access to misconduct records or strengthen the community oversight of the process.

That experience has left advocates skeptical about this year’s effort.

“For years, the General Assembly has made minor tweaks and cosmetic changes that don’t address the root of the problem,” said Yanet Amanuel, the public policy advocate for the ACLU of Maryland, which is part of a coalition of advocacy groups that has made five demands, including the repeal of the bill of rights. “We must end the practice of police policing themselves. Anything that doesn’t achieve that is insufficient.”

Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery), who served on a 2016 work group after Gray’s death and this year’s panel, said he wants to make sure that there is accountability included in the 2020 legislation.

Five years ago, the legislature required the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission to create standards for police departments, but there was no requirement for departments to follow those standards.

“We can’t hardly tell how it’s working,” Moon said of past changes. “I’m keen to make sure we don’t fall into the same trap.”

Atterbeary told the panel when it first convened for hearings in June that “change is ’a coming. I can’t say how change is coming. I hope we can continue to have a dialogue on what that change should be.”

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