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Baltimore County Council hears from officials, residents as it weighs police reform

The Baltimore County Council heard passionate pleas Tuesday night in favor of proposed legislation that would ban the use of chokeholds by police — among other reforms — as some officials questioned the consequences of the bill.

Nearly 50 people waited for more than six hours to speak during the online hearing. Supporters called the proposal a step in the right direction to address excessive use of force by county police. Councilman Julian Jones, a Democrat and the council’s only Black member, introduced the legislation and said the police department is not holding officers accountable.

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The legislation would prohibit the county from hiring officers who either resigned or were fired at previous departments for abusing use of force. Officers would be required to intervene when another officer uses unjust force; officers who intervene and report the misconduct would receive protections from retaliation.

Officers would also receive more de-escalation and bias training, and they would be required to perform or request medical aid in use-of-force situations.

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Randallstown resident Charlene Charvin told the council her nephew Chris Brown would be alive today if the proposed laws were in place years ago. Brown was choked to death in 2012 by Officer James D. Laboard, who was off duty at the time and was later acquitted of criminal charges in the 17-year-old’s death.

The mention of Brown’s death brought Jasmine Richardson to tears.

“We will remember how you [vote] on this bill,” said Richardson, who testified that Brown was her former camper.

Jones’ proposal comes as police departments worldwide begin to ban chokeholds in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in May in Minneapolis, which sparked weeks of global protests. Police use of force is a focus of the Black Lives Matter and 8 Can’t Wait campaigns. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, and County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt responded to the outcry by launching measures requiring officers to report unnecessary use of force.

Hyatt told the council her officers “are rightfully worried” about Jones’ bill. The department’s ability to recruit more officers “will be nonexistent” and their retention “would deteriorate rapidly and drastically,” she said, if the proposal is enacted as written with the intention of criminally punishing officers who violated any of the bill’s requirements.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger called the bill “unworkable” and “truly unfair” for officers who must make split-second decisions. Shellenberger said he’s uncertain “how bad it could be” if Jones’ bill is enacted because it would put officers at risk.

“I just don’t think you can legislate conduct when you don’t know every tiny circumstance that’s going to come up in that particular moment,” Shellenberger said.

Dave Rose of the Baltimore County Police FOP Lodge 4 told the council that residents will try to abuse the bill as it’s currently written by going after police for use of force in incidents involving handcuffs. Likewise, Republican Councilman Todd Crandell said he’s worried the bill could change the definition of use of force.

The bill’s language on use of force “leaves a lot for interpretation and subjectivity,” Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk said, adding that he’s concerned about “legal nuances” and “unintended consequences.”

Democratic Councilman Izzy Patoka said he wants to see amendments to the bill regarding situations involving vehicles. The bill, as currently written, would prohibit officers from shooting at or into a moving vehicle unless the occupants of the vehicle were using lethal force against the officer or another person.

An officer would also be prohibited from intentionally reaching into or placing themselves in the path of a moving vehicle unless the vehicle’s movement presents “an imminent and unavoidable threat” to the officer or others.

There may be times when an officer can’t avoid interactions with a moving vehicle, said Republican Councilman David Marks. Marks and other officials mentioned Officer Amy Caprio, who attempted to stop a suspicious vehicle before the driver accelerated and fatally struck her in 2018.

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Republican Councilman Wade Kach told Hyatt the police initiatives were “a step in the right direction,” but that he thinks some initiatives need to be codified into law. Del. Sheila Ruth, Democrat, testified and said Jones’ bill “absolutely needs to be codified into law” in case the next county executive and police chief dismantle Olszewski’s orders.

Baltimore County police in the past few years have faced scrutiny for their actions, and Claire Landers with Jews United for Justice said residents can no longer accept “the status quo in our county around internal police culture and the blue wall of silence.” Jessica Klaitman said the proposal would help address racial disparities in policing. Larry Gibson, a civil rights leader and University of Maryland professor, said the bill should also ban police from forcing people face-first onto the pavement.

Jones pointed out that eight people were killed by county police last year, which was the highest number statewide among Maryland’s jurisdictions. He also mentioned Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Randallstown woman who was shot and killed in 2016.

Cpl. Royce Ruby was never criminally charged with killing Gaines and injuring her then-5-year-old son after prosecutors deemed the shooting legally justified. Even so, Jones said, incidents like this one could’ve been avoided if officers had better training, and the county could’ve instead spent funds on schools rather than the millions of dollars used to settle cases like Ruby’s.

“There are some things that need to be changed and I look at this as an evolving law,” said Marlene McBride, Gaines’ grandmother. “They should be trained in de-escalation.”

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