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Baltimore County Council passes legislation to ban police chokeholds, impose new oversight

The Baltimore County Council passed legislation Monday night that prohibits police from using chokeholds and will impose new oversight requirements on the police department.

The legislative package introduced by Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and County Councilman Julian Jones, both Democrats, will limit the department’s use of force, provide whistleblower protection to officers who report excessive use of force and compel officers to intervene if they witness excessive use of force.

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The legislation, called the Strengthening Modernization, Accountability, Reform, and Transparency, or SMART Policing Act was approved 6-1. The bill largely mirrors the reform bill Jones proposed before it was tabled by the Council in August.

Police will be required to provide aid to anyone in custody who is injured or complains of an injury, which includes calling for medical assistance. Under the legislation, the department also will be prohibited from hiring officers from another jurisdiction when those officers have been fired or have resigned due to disciplinary concerns, but the police chief still can approve the hiring decision. Officers also will undergo more annual training on de-escalation techniques, bias and use of force.

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Olszewski said in a statement after the vote that the “county has taken a critical — and united— next step toward equal justice.”

“The SMART Policing Act will make our police department and our county better for everyone," Olszewski said in a statement. "This is not the end, but it is another important step towards a more just and equitable future.”

The legislation will require the creation of an early intervention system to identify officers at risk of misconduct. The department also must collect, analyze and release information about all police incidents that involve shootings or deaths. (The county recently released some data about complaints against police and use of force incidents.)

Officers will be prohibited from using chokeholds unless it’s in defense against death or serious bodily injury.

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Jones told the council last week he wanted to add four amendments, including clarity on the chokehold exception, expanding whistleblower protections to apply to all police misconduct, and specifying civilians may be appointed as voting members on the police department’s disciplinary hearing boards.

However, Jones removed three of those amendments before Monday’s vote. Calling their removal “a hard pill to swallow,” Jones said the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights already provides enough protections for the whistleblower provision of his bill. The council’s county attorneys also stressed that state law encourages both nonvoting and voting members on police disciplinary hearing boards.

The fourth and final amendment would require the police chief to submit a use of force report to the County Council by April 1, 2021, and each year thereafter, and to publicly present the report before the County Council.

The fourth amendment was passed unanimously by the council, but Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, was the sole vote against the legislation overall.

Perry Hall Republican Councilman David Marks called the legislation “a very tough bill.” Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, said it offers “resources that our police need.”

The police bill follows measures that Olszewski, whose youngest brother serves in the county police department, introduced with County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt in June during national protests in response to the death of George Floyd while a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck to restrain him.

Jones plans to introduce separate legislation restricting “no-knock warrants,” which are used by police to enter homes without announcing their presence to prevent the destruction of evidence, such as drug stashes or child pornography. Jones wants to limit the use of those warrants to tactical units; situations involving child safety, domestic violence or terrorism; and instances when there’s “reasonable suspicion” that announcing one’s presence would put the officer’s life at risk.

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