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In new police reform initiative, Baltimore County to publish police complaints, update use of force policy and establish watchdog group

With police practices under scrutiny nationwide, Baltimore County is rolling out several policing measures aimed at reform, including requiring officers to report unnecessary use of force, establishing a public database on police complaints and traffic stops, and hiring an outside party to analyze recruitment, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Police Chief Melissa Hyatt announced Friday.

“We are recommitting to making a real change in Baltimore County,” Olszewski said.

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Friday’s announcement comes as protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police have thrust issues like racism and police brutality into the national spotlight.

Some of the measures expand on efforts the county had already been taking during Olszewski’s administration and since Hyatt took the helm as chief nearly a year ago. As part of the reforms, Olszewski will expand a work group that was established in November to review traffic stop practices, after a statewide analysis found black drivers were stopped much more frequently than white drivers in the county.

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The work group will now function as a permanent advisory group focused on racial disparities in policing.

“We can no longer afford to [affect] change at the margins,” Troy Williams, the county’s chief diversity officer, said during the news conference. Olszewski hired Williams as the county’s first chief diversity officer in August 2019.

“Change must be transformative. And today represents a significant step in that direction," Williams said.

The list of reforms include:

  • Updating use of force policy. Hyatt said she has added new provisions to the county’s use of force policy, including requiring officers to intervene and report unnecessary or excessive use of force and stressing sanctity-of-life and constitutional policing.
  • Building a public dashboard of police data. The county will launch an online database displaying the number and disposition of complaints against police officers, when use of force has been used against civilians and traffic stop data broken down by race.
  • Expanding the equitable policing work group. Through an executive order, the county will establish a permanent advisory group focused on racial disparities in policing as an expansion of the work group originally convened to examine traffic stop data.
  • Implementing new police training curriculum. The department will bring in a nationally recognized police training program on Fair and Impartial Policing to be provided to all county police commanders, officers and employees within the year. According to a police spokeswoman, the training will be provided by Fair & Impartial Policing, LLC, which employs what it calls “implicit-bias-awareness curricula.”
  • Independent review of hiring and recruitment. The county will hire a third-party organization to review police hiring and recruitment practices, including assessing data related to discrimination and practices in testing and background investigations.

Calling Floyd’s death a “grievous tragedy,” Hyatt said police are having internal conversations surrounding “sensitive topics that have not previously been considered internally for discussion."

“Good police officers, the ones that took their oath and take it seriously every single day, really despise corrupt or abusive people that are cloaked in the uniform that we wear so proudly," Hyatt said. “Their actions damage the good work that our police officers commit to doing every single day in our communities.”

The county is among the first in the state to roll out broad measures in the wake of widespread protests. Annapolis has established a civilian review board, and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman has said he wants to fund body-worn cameras for the county’s police department. Baltimore County police employ body cameras.

However, the Baltimore City Council is also considering cuts to the city’s $500 million police budget.

County Councilman Julian Jones, a Democrat who represents Randallstown, Woodlawn and Owings Mills, also intends to propose a bill on police reform that he said supplements efforts by Olszewski and Hyatt.

In addition to requiring officers to intervene and report instances of excessive or inappropriate use of force and prohibit the use of chokeholds, Jones is proposing to implement an “early intervention system” based on statistics for individual officers “who may be at risk for engaging in excessive force,” require that police use de-escalation methods before applying physical force, and further limit the instances when physical force is permitted, Jones wrote in a news release.

Jones expects to propose the bill at the council’s next meeting at the end of June.

“In these times we all have to sort of do our part,” Jones said. “He’s doing his part as executive, and I’m going to do my part in the legislative branch.”

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Sen. William C. Smith Jr., chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, has proposed a broad set of initiatives that would create a civilian board to review police misconduct complaints, and make complaints and disciplinary records about police officers subject to the Maryland Public Information Act in cases of deaths, shootings, sexual assaults, discrimination, dishonesty or improper use of force.

Olszewski on Friday announced his support for state legislation to amend the state’s sunshine law.

State Sen. Chris West, a Republican who represents the Towson area and also sits on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said many of Olszewski’s reforms, like further training and independent reviews of policing practices, seem reasonable, but cautioned local and state lawmakers on publishing information on complaints made against officers.

It would be “unfortunate" if an officer unduly accused of misconduct had “his name in the newspaper” before investigations were complete, West said.

“We don’t do that to employees in other departments. We need to be careful,” he said.

West added that in 2019, 50 complaints against county police were made out of nearly 750,000 calls for service. Force was used 249 times last year, according to data from the Baltimore County Fraternal Police Lodge #4.

“Our police force should be inclusive, reflective of the communities it serves and utilize modern techniques,” said Republican County Councilman David Marks. “Any changes should be implemented after consultation with communities of color, and the [Fraternal Order of Police].”

While any “bad apples” should be weeded out, Democratic County Councilman Tom Quirk said community relationships with police in his southwest county district have been positive, and he has received very few complaints of police misconduct during a decade serving on the council.

The police union did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a statement posted prior to Friday’s announcement, called the narrative of “rampant use of force by our officers ... simply untrue.”

Between 2010 and 2019, the police union said, use of force — which the union defined as any execution of a physical act to control another person — was reported 2,934 times.

Baltimore County in the past few months has come under scrutiny for actions taken by responding police. In November, an officer shot and killed 48-year-old Eric Sopp during a traffic stop on Interstate 83 after his mother reported he had made suicidal threats.

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In January, two officers tackled 76-year-old Gwynn Oak resident Rena Mellerson to the ground in an incident caught on video.

Baltimore defense attorney J. Wyndal Gordon said the reform efforts announced by Olszewski and Hyatt were a “step in the right direction.”

“If the updates and reforms become tangible ... and reduce negative police encounters, then that’s good,” said Gordon, who represented Mellerson after she was charged with second-degree assault, obstructing and hindering and resisting or interfering with the arrest of her granddaughter, Cierra Floyd.

“You do have to give credit where credit is due,” Gordon said, adding that conversations with community members as the county continues efforts to update its use of force policy are essential.

The police department was also the subject of a federal lawsuit against the county alleging that written test for county police recruits was biased against African-American applicants. Olszewski, whose brother is a county officer, established a work group in November to examine potentially discriminatory practices by the police department’s predominantly white male workforce.

As of February, minority groups — including black, Hispanic, Asian American, Alaskan and Native American — made up 20% of the county police force, which totals 1,890 officers, according to police department statistics.

African Americans made up 30% of the county’s population in 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections.

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