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Baltimore County Council shelves police chokehold ban and reform bill

Baltimore County Council abandoned plans to vote on legislation that would ban the use of chokeholds by police — among other reforms — after the council expressed concerns about a series of amendments that would’ve “gutted” the proposed bill.

The council voted 4-3 to postpone the bill after Councilman Tom Quirk, a Democrat, said he wanted to see a statewide law passed instead. He also voiced confidence in the work being done by the police chief, county executive, and the county state’s attorney to ensure that police will be held accountable for their actions.

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Republican council members Todd Crandell and David Marks voted to postpone the vote as well. Marks said the bill they were going to vote on Monday night was filled with so many amendments that it was unfair that residents didn’t have an opportunity to review the proposed changes beforehand.

Council members Izzy Patoka and Julian Jones, both Democrats, and Republican Councilman Wade Kach voted against the motion to postpone the vote. Kach said he’s “disappointed” the council didn’t vote on the bill tonight because he supported parts of the bill, such as prohibiting the county from hiring officers who either resigned or were fired at previous departments for abusing use of force. He also wants county police to receive more de-escalation training, as required in the bill.

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Democratic Council Chair Cathy Bevins cast the deciding vote to postpone the vote, stating her district feels “each way” about the need for reform. She said she repeatedly reminds herself that “George Floyd was not killed by a Baltimore County Police officer,” and she agreed with Quirk’s stance on waiting for a statewide law, as well as the initiatives being performed by the police chief and county executive.

“I want this bill to make a difference,” Bevins said. “If this bill doesn’t make a difference in somebody’s life, it’s not worth the paper that it’s printed on,” Bevins said.

Bevins said “I do care about Black Lives Matter,” and “I care about all lives,” as she stressed that the department is moving in the right direction. Even so, Jones called the postponement “a disgrace on our council.”

“Where is the law to protect future Korryn Gaines and future Eric Sopps,” Jones said, referring to incidents where county police fatally shot two residents in the past. “What you’re looking at is a systemic problem in how our police officers apply deadly force.”

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The legislation proposed by Councilman Julian Jones, the council’s only Black member, would have required officers to intervene when another officer uses unjust force; officers who intervene and report the misconduct would have received protections from retaliation.

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 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.

Olszewski said in a statement Monday night that the council’s decision to table the legislation “reinforces the urgency of implementing the reforms I recently announced,” such as diversifying the police force and working on police relationships with county communities.

“There’s a light now shining brightly on what we already knew: that we have a long way to go to achieve equal justice for African American communities and that leaders at all levels have a responsibility to take action,” Olszewski said in a statement.

Hyatt previously told the council her 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 also voiced opposition to the legislation.

Jones’ bill has nonetheless attracted support from the relatives of Chris Brown, a 17-year-old from Randallstown who 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.

Likewise, the proposal is supported by the relatives of Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Randallstown resident 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.

The legislation would require officers to receive more bias and de-escalation training on non-aggressive verbal communication, creating physical space, and permitting a person to talk and ask questions to resolve a conflict. The legislation would have limited officers to use “the minimum degree of force” necessary to achieve an arrest or “other lawful objectives” under the law. Officers would have been required to perform or request medical aid in use-of-force situations and officers would have to request a crisis intervention team or mental health professionals in certain situations as well.

The bill would have prohibited 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.

The bill also called for the use of an “early intervention system” to identify officers who are at risk for misconduct, and to provide those officers with retraining or reassigning to eliminate that risk. A public database on excessive use of force among police would be created as part of the intervention system. Lastly, the bill would require the police chief to appoint two voting members of the public to any police conduct hearing board.

“We wanted to pass this bill and it’s always about compromise in this job sometimes,” Bevins said.

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