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As supporters line up for Baltimore County police reform bill, some in community ask for more changes

The Baltimore County Council heard nearly three hours of testimony Tuesday night on legislation that would ban chokeholds, among other reforms at the county’s police department.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and County Councilman Julian Jones, both Democrats, want the police department to update its policy to limit use of force, provide whistleblower protection to officers who report misconduct, compel officers to intervene if they witness excessive use of force and establish an early intervention system to identify officers at risk of misconduct.

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The legislation, called the Strengthening Modernization, Accountability, Reform, and Transparency, or SMART, Policing Act, largely mirrors the reform bill Jones proposed before it was tabled by the Council in August. Jones said he will be adding amendments to the bill, including a requirement for the police chief to publicly discuss the state of policing in the county annually.

The bill would also prohibit the department from hiring officers from another jurisdiction when those officers have been fired or have resigned due to disciplinary concerns, unless the police chief deems the hire appropriate.

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Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who opposed the previous version of the bill, told the council he supports the new bill and it’s “in good shape” for the council’s consideration.

The Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #4 also opposed the previous bill, but FOP President Dave Rose voiced support for the new bill.

Del. Benjamin Brooks, a Baltimore County Democrat, testified “strongly in support” of the legislation. He said the bill would “foster accountability” in a department that needs to improve its relationship with county residents.

“This bill is not an anti-police bill, but it is a pro-accountability bill,” Brooks said. “The most important currency a police officer can have is the trust of the community.”

Jessica Klaitman said the police need to be held accountable to both the community and its officers. She said this bill would ensure the county doesn’t have a situation of misconduct and corruption seen in the Baltimore City Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force.

Republican Councilman David Marks signed onto the legislation along with council chair Cathy Bevins and councilmen Tom Quirk and Izzy Patoka, who are all Democrats. Republican Councilman Wade Kach, who supported the previous proposal, has previously stated this legislation ensures these measures are “protected for years to come."

Republican Councilman Todd Crandell, who voted to table the initial reform bill in August, called the bill “redundant” because the police are already taking steps to strengthen the department.

“I don’t believe the Baltimore County Police Department needs this,” Crandell said.

Councilman Quirk said he’s looking forward "to voting for the bill as it’s written.”

Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson said police misconduct is "a recent trauma” for many county residents. Mckesson, a Baltimore City native who grew up in Catonsville, said county police killed more people in Maryland than any other police department in 2017 and 2019.

“Of the hundreds of policies that I’ve looked at across the country, the Baltimore County deadly force standard is literally in the top five of the worst that I’ve seen,” Mckesson said.

Some residents urged the council to vote for Jones’ forthcoming amendments to the bill. One county resident called the bill as it’s written “a pared down version" of Jones' initial bill that will be “weak and ineffective” without amendments.

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Linda Dorsey Walker, a Randallstown resident who is a member of the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee, said the bill needs to require officers to go through anger management, among other reform amendments.

“If the FOP and Shellenberger support this bill, then you better believe they pretty much got more rights than us,” said Ryan Gaines, whose daughter, Korryn, was fatally shot by county police in 2016.

The proposal 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 Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

Jones also 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.

The council is slated to vote on the SMART Policing Act on Oct. 5.

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