Baltimore Police leaders, citing the death of George Floyd that sparked protests across Maryland and the country, are joining a chorus of voices lobbying for substantial changes in how police officers in Maryland are investigated and held accountable for misconduct.
Baltimore’s leadership is asking lawmakers to change the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a decades-old law that grants Maryland police officers the right to due process and protects them against unnecessary investigation or prosecution. But in recent years, many advocates have sought to reforms the officers’ bill of rights, which they say has made it more difficult to punish bad police officers and isn’t transparent enough.
A House of Delegates police reform work group heard hours of testimony Thursday during an online public hearing in favor of reforming or repealing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said the law is a “straitjacket” that makes it difficult to discipline police officers. The Maryland Public Information Act, meanwhile, protects the disciplinary records of officers shielded from public scrutiny.
Rocah said that even without their bill of rights, police officers accused of misconduct still would have due process rights and the ability to challenge disciplinary actions under other state laws.
“It’s long since past time for it to be repealed,” Rocah told lawmakers.
Baltimore’s Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, along with city leaders, is seeking changes that would allow the police commissioner to fire officers charged with felonies and misdemeanors, instead of having to wait until they are convicted. The city made its request in a letter to the state Commission to Restore Trust in Policing, which was formed to look into widespread corruption by the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force, which led to more than a dozen officers being convicted in federal court.
The department wants Harrison to have the ability to fire officers “in the days immediately following a criminal incident, as the chief of the Minneapolis Police Department did last month,” wrote Kristin E. Blumer, a city chief solicitor.
The four-page letter also cites specific police misconduct cases they say were hampered by the officers’ bill of rights. After former Baltimore Police Officer Wesley Cagle shot a burglary suspect already incapacitated by other officers, Cagle remained employed by the department two years later, the letter says. Under the proposed changes, the police commissioner could have fired Cagle immediately.
In addition to the ability to quickly terminate, the changes sought by Baltimore would ask the legislature to give officers “a mechanism to petition the law enforcement agency to rehire or reinstate them in the event the criminal charges resulted in a not guilty verdict.”
A call to Baltimore’s Police union president was not returned Thursday.
Short of allowing chiefs to fire officers for just being charged with a crime, the proposals backed by Harrison also suggest giving chiefs more power to suspend officers without pay when they are charged with misdemeanors.
“When an officer’s police powers are suspended with pay, the Department must then find a job in which to place that officer, which often results in a waste of resources,” Blumer wrote.
The letter also supports allowing civilians “to co-investigate allegations of misconduct” with a department investigator, which many advocates say is necessary to provide civilian oversight.
During Thursday’s legislative work group, relatives of people killed by police officers appeared to urge lawmakers to hold police accountable for their actions. They told of young men being killed or injured in police custody in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George’s counties.
Marion Gray-Hopkins has been fighting for police reform more than two decades, after her 19-year-old son Gary Hopkins Jr. died at the hands of Prince George’s County Police following a dance in 1999.
“We all know that the system is broken,” she said. “It failed Gary and my family through this entire process.”
Greta Willis watched as her 14-year-old son Kevin L. Cooper was shot and killed by a Baltimore City officer during a mental health crisis in 2006.
“There is no accountability in the Baltimore Police Department, even now,” Willis said.
Police determined the fatal shooting to be justified the day it happened, she said. No charges were filed against the officer.
“Where is the investigation? Where is the transparency?” Willis asked
LaToya Holley said that if it was easier to find out past records of police officers, then deaths like her brother Anton Black’s could be avoided. In 2018, the 19-year-old was chased, Tased and taken down by police in the Eastern Shore town of Greensboro. He died in the hospital.
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After Black’s death, the family learned that one of the officers involved had a history of complaints in nearby Delaware, but was hired by the Greensboro Police anyway. The officer ultimately lost his police certification in Maryland.
“We don’t want other families to go through what we went through,” Holley said.
Sgt. Aaron Penman of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, president of the deputy sheriffs’ union, asked lawmakers to remember that their actions will have “great impact” on law enforcement officers.
Penman said deputy sheriffs would be open to having additional misconduct investigations conducted by a separate group in parallel with internal affairs investigations — though he said such a group should have law enforcement experience to understand “the requirements and demands of the position.”
He also expressed concern about passing a law prescribing limits on when officers can use force. Each situation, he said, warrants a different approach and officers should use their discretion and training. Such a law might result in more officers and community members being “hurt or killed,” Penman said.
The House of Delegates work group aims to propose legislation that would be considered during the next General Assembly session, scheduled for January.