Assembly panel to look at police discipline issues

General Assembly group to study legislation to discipline police officers

After proposals to make it easier to discipline police officers fell flat in the General Assembly, a high-profile panel of lawmakers will consider whether such bills ought to become Maryland law.

The legislature's presiding officers formed the Workgroup on Public Safety to examine such issues as how officers are trained to interact with the community and how they are held accountable in cases of possible misconduct. The group's first meeting is Monday.

"We are definitely going to try to develop specific legislation to deal with long-term solutions to create better relations between the community and the police," said Del. Curt Anderson, who will co-chair the panel along with Sen. Catherine E. Pugh. Both are Baltimore Democrats.

"This is by no means and exercise in beating up on the police," said Pugh. "For the most part, our police do their jobs."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael. E. Busch announced the formation of the panel May 5, four days after Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced plans to charge six city officers with crimes in connection with Freddie Gray's death after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. But Anderson said plans had been in the works to give issues of police-community relations extra scrutiny long before Gray's arrest.

Bills seeking more police accountability were introduced after a Baltimore Sun investigation last year found that city taxpayers had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 to settle 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. Officers had battered dozens of residents during questionable arrests, the investigation revealed, resulting in broken bones, organ failure and even death. A nationwide uproar over police-involved deaths of unarmed black men added to the concern.

Several of the bills in Annapolis were priorities of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, but law enforcement agencies across the state opposed them as unfair.

The work group set up by the presiding officers includes 10 senators and 10 delegates of both parties, drawn from urban, suburban and rural jurisdictions. Among its members are lawmakers with experience in law enforcement and prosecution of criminal defendants.

A collective of activist groups — ranging from the ACLU to Amnesty International to immigrants rights and religious groups — scheduled a news conference Monday morning before the hearing to outline what they called the "acceptable principles" for police reform. The groups said they would spell out the standards by which they would judge the success of the work group.

Not everybody is happy with the panel's composition.

The Rev. C. D. Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Council active in protests against police brutality, said the work group should have included others besides lawmakers.

"They are decision makers but they need to be connected to stakeholders to do something positive and meaningful that will have a real impact," he said. "Giving testimony is different from being part of a process."

Pugh said critics don't understand how the Assembly works.

"This is not a commission. This is legislators looking at potential legislation we can put in place," she said.

Anderson said that during this year's session, 15 to 20 bills on various aspects of policing were introduced by seven or eight lawmakers but never received full consideration.

"They were all kind of catch-as-catch can. There was no comprehensive movement on anything," he said. "We couldn't really do that in a 90-day session."

Efforts to pass the bills were complicated by the fact that many of the lawmakers were freshmen getting their first exposure to the issues. It is not unusual for the Assembly to set up a task force or work group to study a complex issues in the interim before the next 90-day session.

The public safety work group is one of three panels established by the legislature this spring to delve deeper into criminal justice issues. One will focus specifically on creating a statewide policy for the use of police body cameras. Another will undertake a sweeping review of Maryland's sentencing, parole and probation policies with an eye toward reducing both crime and incarceration levels.

While members say the public safety work group will focus heavily on Baltimore's policing issues, they stress that they will attempt to craft policies for all parts of the state.

"This is a universal problem that needs universal attention," said Del. Nathaniel Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat who will serve on the panel.

Perhaps the most controversial issue the panel will address is the possible revision of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, a statewide law governing how state and local governments bring disciplinary actions against officers suspected or accused of misconduct.

Many, including the mayor, contend that the law goes too far in preventing police departments from cracking down on officers in cases of brutality or other misconduct. But efforts to change the bill of rights didn't get out of committee this year.

That issue is likely to pit police critics and defenders as the work group hears testimony on that touchy issue.

Frank B. Boston III, legislative counsel to the state Fraternal Order of Police, said the union is looking forward to having "a seat at the table" as the panel launches its inquiry into the police rights law.

"Clearly in the past we have been protectors of it because we thought it worked," Boston said. "Hopefully we will be used as a resource to help the legislature understand how [it] works from a practical point of view."

Lawmakers will also hear from critics of that law, such as Sara Love, public policy director at the ACLU of Maryland. Love said she will advocate for changes in such provisions as one that bars police supervisors from questioning an officer about suspected excessive force until 10 days after the incident.

"I don't know of any other instance where an employer can't ask an employee what happened for 10 days," Love said. "It's just unfathomable."

Panel member Del. Brett Wilson, a Washington County Republican and a prosecutor, while in private practice represented the county sheriff's department in employment cases against deputies. He found that the law struck a good balance between officer's rights and the public interest.

"I've seen the system work," he said, but stressed he would keep an open mind.

Oaks, meanwhile, thinks the law needs to be fixed.

"We should not afford officers rights and privileges we do not afford Joe Blow citizen," he said.

Oaks said he hoped the legislature could find ways to help restore trust that has been lost between police and the communities they serve.

"I remember very clearly 'the man in blue is a friend to you.' That was what I was taught growing up in Cherry Hill," said Oaks, who now represents Northwest Baltimore. "I would like to recapture some of that."

mdresser@baltsun.com

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