A brief look at how the Maryland Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights was passed

Critics say Maryland's law enforcement officer's bill of rights goes too far protecting officers from discipline and scrutiny, and on Tuesday in Annapolis, activists, civil liberties advocates and unions will take turns speaking out on proposed changes.

It's worth taking a look at the beginnings of this controversial bill, which in 1974 was the first of its kind in the country. News reports from the time show it had come in response to a heavy-handed city police commissioner with a quick trigger for firing or suspending officers.

The bill was specifically pushed by Baltimore delegates on behalf of officers in Baltimore, who feared the reach of then-Commissioner Donald Pomerlau. In fact, the state police and departments in Montgomery, Howard, Carroll and Frederick counties all asked to be exempted, The Sun reported at the time.

City officers said they were being suspended without evidence, forced to take lie detectors — a new technology at the time — without being told of the charges against them, and had their careers ruined after investigations turned up no evidence.

"Officers have been transferred in an almost continual shake-up over the past few months," an article read.

A delegate overseeing a hearing about the proposed law even felt the need to speak out against the prospect of reprisals for officers who testified in support. The BPD was being "run like an Army," one legislator said.

More than 50 officers showed up to testify at a hearing in 1973 when the bill was first pushed, and brought their wives and children. Witnesses who testified threatened delegates with "retaliation at the polls if favorable action is not taken," and accused the media of a "press conspiracy to muffle voices of support."

"A vote against the bill is a vote for the criminal element," the bill's principal sponsor, Del. John J. Gallagher of Baltimore, said.

More than 60 delegates eventually co-sponsored the bill, which The Sun referred to as "politically popular."

The bill gave officers the right to an attorney and "other rights enjoyed by ordinary citizens." Officers then and today say their Constitutional rights when under criminal investigation shouldn't be taken away because they are police officers, while critics say the bill's provisions help officers avoid punishment and scrutiny. Police departments today say disciplinary actions and outcomes can't be discussed.

Thomas A. Rapanotti, the executive director of the city Police Union in 1973, testified that "policemen have no rights for themselves, no defense. A policeman is never advised of his rights, because he has no rights." Once suspended, another union official said, an officer was "automatically crucified by the public ... He'll never function as a police officer again."

The bill passed overwhelmingly by the House of Delegates and the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee, but got tripped up and sent back to the committee in April of 1973. Supporters feared it would be killed.

Sen. J. Joseph Curran Jr., who would later become Attorney General, said that the committee had "overlooked serious defects when it approved the bill because it was 'somewhat blinded to the realities ... in an effort to be sympathetic to the policemen," an article at the time read.

"The more we read this bill, the more we realized just how bad it is," Sen. James S. McAuliffe Jr., of Montgomery County, said. "This bill is a disaster."

One provision forbid departmental charges unless they were leveled in a sworn affidavit, which McAuliffe said would cripple discipline and efforts to address misconduct. But the articles did not outline additional concerns.

The bill did not pass in 1973, and news coverage of the effort appears to have fallen off the next year when it was proposed again the following year.

The bill was signed into law by Gov. Marvin Mandel, a Democrat, in 1974, and would be touted as a necessary safeguard after Pomerleau began going after officers who had been involved in a four-day strike over pay. Decades later, it has become a lightning rod for criticism.

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