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Baltimore County’s Olszewski, Jones announce new police reform bill banning chokeholds

The Baltimore County Council will consider another police reform bill that would ban chokeholds and neck restraints, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and County Councilman Julian Jones announced at a Tuesday news conference.

The legislation is essentially the same reform bill Jones proposed before it was tabled by the County Council in August. It calls for the Baltimore County Police Department to update its policy to limit use of force; provides whistleblower protection to officers who report misconduct; compels officers to intervene if they witness excessive use of force; and establishes an early-intervention system to identify officers at risk of misconduct, among other measures.

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Although the draft bill prohibits the department from hiring officers from another jurisdiction when those officers have been fired or have resigned in connection with a pending or sustained disciplinary record, it allows county Police Chief Melissa Hyatt to continue making recruitment decisions at her discretion.

“The bill goes as far as I could get it to go,” Jones said.

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The new legislation, dubbed the Strengthening Modernization, Accountability, Reform, and Transparency, or SMART, Policing Act, gets rid of some provisions in Jones' initial reform proposal that some stakeholders said went too far in seeking to control a responding officer’s actions, and would seek to codify certain reform measures through police policy rather than in county law.

When council members voted to shelve Jones’ original bill, they cited draft amendments floated at the last minute that did not make it to the floor for public discussion, although the legislation announced Tuesday keeps many of the same provisions.

Republican Councilman David Marks as well as council chair Cathy Bevins and Councilman Tom Quirk, both Democrats, have signaled their support for the new legislation after they voted to table the initial reform bill in August, along with Republican Councilman Todd Crandell.

Councilmen Izzy Patoka and Wade Kach, who supported the previous proposal, also have signed onto the new legislation.

Bevins said in a news release that the measures “will make an already strong police department even stronger.”

The legislation comes ahead of a broad set of reforms lawmakers say will be proposed at the General Assembly, which include banning violent police tactics, making disciplinary records public and ending the purchase of military equipment for officers.

Quirk said the local legislation will complement the work “with our state legislators on additional next steps to improve policing in every neighborhood.”

Jones also plans to introduce separate legislation restricting “no-knock warrants,” which are police use 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.

“I value and respect the great men and women of the Baltimore County Police Department, and this commonsense bill will help ensure they receive the right training and policies to serve and protect every member of every community,” Jones said in a statement.

Those steps “are just the beginning, not the end,” Olszewski said during the morning news conference.

“The open exchange that occurred between stakeholders during the drafting of this legislation has resulted in a proposal which will reinforce the progressive work that our department is already spearheading,” Hyatt said in a statement.

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“Our officers will continue to provide compassionate and professional police service to the residents and visitors of Baltimore County," she said. "We are committed to adopting expert methods and progressive strategies that focus on collaboration and transparency in order to keep our communities safe.”

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #4 could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

The proposal follows provisions Olszewski outlined in June amid nationwide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Those reforms establish a public database with statistics on use of force by police, traffic stops broken down by race and a permanent advisory group that will make recommendations on addressing racial disparities within county policing.

Use of force data and complaints against officers are expected to be available to the public in the coming weeks.

Baltimore County has faced scrutiny before for actions taken by responding police officers, including police shootings and racial disparities in traffic stops, and was the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit alleging written tests for officer recruits were biased against Black candidates.

Olszewski, whose brother is a county officer, established a work group in November to examine hiring practices by the police department and created a separate group last year to analyze traffic stop practices.

In June, Olszewski broadened the focus of the former traffic stop group, headed by the county’s first chief diversity officer, to issue recommendations on racial inequities in policing.

The group’s report is expected by the end of the year, a county spokesman said.

Jones will introduce the legislation at the County Council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8, and it will be discussed during the Sept. 29 work session before an Oct. 5 vote.

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