The Baltimore County Council unanimously approved a bill Thursday creating a police accountability board — but without several changes that advocates for reform said would strengthen the new panel.
By a 4-3 vote, the council also passed an amendment prohibiting people convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors from serving on the board for 10 years.
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, spoke strongly against that ban, saying people who have served their time “should be able to live as a citizen and a taxpayer in their county and in their state.”
Statewide police reforms that passed last year require each county in Maryland to establish a local accountability board. The board will receive complaints of officer misconduct, review disciplinary outcomes and appoint civilian members to administrative charging committees.
Baltimore County’s board will have nine members, nominated by the county executive and confirmed by the seven-member council.
The Baltimore County Coalition for Police Accountability had called for independent legal counsel for the board, as well as investigatory powers and compensation for board members. The county attorney will serve as the board’s legal adviser, which activists called a conflict of interest because he also represents county police officers.
The coalition said the changes they sought would have helped ensure strong civilian oversight of policing.
The council did not make those changes. Members of the coalition accused the council of ignoring input from county residents and instead seeking to protect law enforcement.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Lorena Diaz, a community organizer with the ACLU of Maryland and a coalition member. And “we are appalled by the ban around individuals with priors. We’re really glad that Cathy Bevins spoke out about that.”
During the meeting, Bevins said people who have criminal backgrounds should not be barred from serving on the board — and in fact should “be a part of this process, because they went through it.”
Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, said the board should be “pristine” and people with felony records should be prohibited from serving.
“I just don’t understand how a convicted felon should be on a board charged with judging police disciplinary behavior,” said Crandell, who wanted people with felony records to be permanently barred from serving on the police accountability board.
“I disagree,” Bevins replied. “They actually went through the process and had to deal with the police and the criminal justice system.”
The divided council voted for an amendment saying someone cannot be nominated as a board member if, within 10 years, they have been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor carrying a penalty of more than two years in prison. Councilman Tom Quirk of Oella was the only Democrat to support that amendment.
Diaz said the coalition will focus now on getting the word out that people can apply to serve on the board and assuring that there is diversity among its members.
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County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, said in an interview after the vote that he’s committed to getting the board up and running “as quickly, but also as responsibly as possible.”
The county will work to “ensure that we identify, recruit and appoint individuals that reflect the diversity of our county and have a wide range of experience,” Olszewski said.
Also Thursday, the council approved Olszewski’s spending plan for the fiscal year starting in July, which includes a $4.8 billion operating budget and a $352 million capital plan.
They made no cuts to the spending plan, which doesn’t include tax increases. Under the county charter, the council can only cut from the county executive’s budget, not add to it.
The council unanimously agreed that “spending cuts were not warranted this year,” said Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat.
However, Jones and some other members expressed concerns during the meeting about the number of vacancies and retirements in the police department, as well as the ongoing shortage of school bus drivers.
Thursday’s meeting was the last budget vote for Quirk and Bevins, who were first elected in 2010. Both plan to step down from the council when their terms end later this year. Other members of the council, as well as Olszewski, are seeking reelection this year.