Reform Maryland's officers' bill of rights

Maryland needs a better strategy to address police misconduct.

In 2008, Manuel Espina was killed by Prince George's County police officer Steven Jackson while Espina was waiting outside his apartment building for his wife and son to finish preparing his birthday party. A civilian jury found Officer Jackson guilty of maliciously beating and shooting Espina and, as an indication of its outrage, awarded his family $11.5 million. Yet Officer Jackson was never even disciplined by the police department, following an internal investigation governed by the Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights (LEOBR).

Maryland and the nation are grappling with how to restore trust that law enforcement officers will treat all the people they serve fairly and equally, and that the officers can be and will be held accountable when they do not. One critical component of reform locally has to be reform of LEOBR.

Enacted in 1974, Maryland's LEOBR is one of the most extreme such laws in the country. It covers two components of the disciplinary process: the internal investigations that may lead to a recommendation of disciplinary action against a police officer and procedures that must be followed once an investigation results in a recommendation of discipline.

As currently structured, LEOBR grants police officers special rights when they are investigated for misconduct, imposes significant impediments to conducting an adequate investigation and takes responsibility for discipline away from police chiefs. Significantly, LEOBR is a substantial barrier to transparency that precludes meaningful civilian oversight of the disciplinary process. And because of these flaws, a great many people have no faith that the officers who police our communities will be held accountable when they act improperly.

Several changes are needed to bring the statute in line with what is granted to public employees generally and what is granted in other states to their police.

Currently superiors may not question their officers for 10 days following an incident. Not only are officers entitled to an attorney, union attorneys are usually available to them immediately. There is no need for an additional waiting period. Ten days simply impedes investigation and significantly delays the ability of police departments to communicate effectively with the public about what happened.

Other timelines are too short and must be lengthened. Excessive force complaints are required to be brought within 90 days and must be notarized. That means anyone in the hospital, in jail, or unaware of his or her rights is effectively prevented from filing an excessive force complaint. And all administrative actions must be brought within one year under the current law. However, in several cases crucial information has been discovered in civil litigation after a year has passed. At that point, the agency is then barred from disciplining the offending officer.

Under the current Maryland LEOBR, a police chief also has little to no authority to discipline an officer. Discipline may not be imposed unless recommended by a hearing board comprised of other sworn officers. So regardless of the findings of an internal investigation, a police chief cannot impose discipline unless the chief's subordinates approve, including one of equal rank of the officer being investigated. This process is not just a barrier to discipline for misconduct. It is upside-down. Instead of an officer appealing a disciplinary decision to a hearing board, the process starts with the hearing board. This process should be brought in line with the norm for all other government employees.

The possibility for civilian review should also be preserved. Self-review by public institutions is rarely the best form of ensuring a thorough, transparent and effective evaluation. Yet currently LEOBR precludes meaningful civilian review by mandating that only police can investigate or discipline other police. Reforms will preserve the ability of localities to construct meaningful civilian review boards.

We need systemic reform, which will ensure that "bad apples" on any police force are addressed while fostering a culture of trust and accountability that could reduce police abuse overall. The ACLU of Maryland, which was founded in 1931 in response to police-complicit lynchings held on Eastern Shore courthouse lawns, believes in due process. But the LEOBR goes too far.

It is time to bring Maryland's LEOBR in line with the balance that has been struck in other states.

Susan Goering is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. Her email is goering@aclu-md.org.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°