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Maryland legislators considering law to further restrict when police can use deadly force

Lawmakers considering changes to policing in Maryland after the death of Freddie Gray are looking at whether state law should more strictly define the circumstances in which officers can use deadly force.

"Why are so many people being shot and killed by police officers?" asked Sen. Catherine Pugh, co-chair of the state's new working group on public safety.

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The Baltimore Democrat said she wants to learn more about how and when local police are trained to pull their weapons. "That will be part of the discussion," she said.

The panel is reviewing the law amid growing concern around policing in Baltimore, where homicides have spiked and arrests have declined since six Baltimore police officers were charged in Gray's arrest and death.

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Union officials have said officers are doing their jobs despite their concerns that they will be arrested for doing so, and analysts say there is little evidence that fewer arrests equate to more violence.

Still, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has responded to concerns about a police slowdown by saying officers need to earn their paychecks.

Amnesty International said Thursday that a lack of laws on use of deadly force by officers is limiting police accountability nationwide.

Maryland, the human rights group found, is one of nine states with no law on the police use of deadly force. The state defers to federal law and the guidelines set by individual police departments.

The Baltimore Police Department did not respond Thursday to requests for comment or a copy of its use-of-force guidelines. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents police officers in Baltimore, did not respond to a request for comment.

A review of use-of-force policies provided by the Maryland State Police and county police and sheriff's departments in the Baltimore region, however, showed general similarities but also substantive variations in language and guidance to officers.

State troopers are permitted to use deadly force "in self-defense, or to defend another person who is being unlawfully attacked, from death or serious injury." It may also be used "to prevent the escape of a felon" under certain circumstances, including when it is a last resort and the office has a reasonable belief that the individual "poses a significant threat of using deadly force against a trooper or others if not immediately apprehended."

In Baltimore County, deadly force "may be applied in immediate danger situations, where present peril or jeopardy exists and the officer has a reasonable belief that action must be taken instantly or without considerable delay."

In Howard County, deadly force "may only be used in self-defense or in the defense of others when an officer is confronted by what he has reason to believe is the imminent threat of death or serious physical injury," or "as a last resort" to prevent the escape of a suspect who officers believe presents an imminent threat of death or serious injury to others.

The policies in Anne Arundel and Harford counties are similar.

All of the policies elaborate on the circumstances necessary for the use of deadly force in substantially different ways — discussing the use of vehicles by suspects, the use of canines by police and the amount of information an officer has about a suspect at the time of the incident.

The Supreme Court has already established that officers may use a reasonable amount of force to overcome a threat of serious injury or death to themselves or other people — even if that threat is posed by a fleeing suspect.

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"It's pretty open-ended," said David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied police misconduct. "But it's law nonetheless, and it's law in all 50 states."

States cannot pass laws that are less restrictive, he said, but they can pass laws that are more restrictive.

"You could think of it as setting a minimum, a floor, below which the state cannot go," he said.

Amnesty International said no state has use-of-force standards that are as strong as those laid out by the United Nations in its Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials.

The U.N. says deadly force can be used only as a last resort in instances where an officer's life or the life of a bystander is immediately threatened and less-deadly force is not an option.

Justin Mazzola, an Amnesty International researcher who helped compile the report, said department-level policies are insufficient to bring about change.

"It's not accountability," Mazzola said. "A violation of a policy is an administrative infraction. It's not what meets international law and standards when you are giving the authority to police to use not only force, but lethal force. That has to be codified within law."

Most instances of deadly force by officers involve shootings. But other lethal actions by police should also be governed by law, Amnesty said.

Gray, 25, died in April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. Witnesses to his arrest outside the Gilmor Homes housing project in West Baltimore said he was treated roughly by officers before he was loaded into a police van.

His death stirred demonstrations and protests in Baltimore and around the country.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby charged six police officers last month in his arrest and death. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch established the working group on public safety to review state law.

The panel, which met last week for the first time, is planning several months of meetings. Del. Curt Anderson, Pugh's co-chair, said members will look at why use-of-force guidelines vary around the state.

"There seem to be a hodgepodge of expectations of citizens on what to expect from one jurisdiction to another," the Baltimore Democrat said. "If you're living in the state of Maryland, there ought to be some consistency."

Others agreed.

"It makes sense that there should be a uniform state standard on this rather than delegating it to local police," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, a member of the task force and a professor of constitutional law at American University.

"We had a huge debate in Maryland lasting many years over the death penalty after arrest, prosecution, conviction, punishment and full due process," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "Surely we should have some statewide standards governing the acceptable use of lethal force by police in the absence of any judicial process."

Raskin said the policies of some police departments in the region might be appropriate, but the state still needs to take a position.

Harris, the Pittsburgh law professor, said any attempt by Maryland to restrict police beyond the federal standard will likely meet resistance from police departments and unions, which have generally fought to keep limits on their use of power in line with the standards established at the federal level.

"What police department is going to want to limit its police officers in terms of what they are constitutionally allowed to do?" Harris said.

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David Nitkin, a spokesman for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, said the attorney general's office will review the Amnesty report and is monitoring Pugh's panel.

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"We're listening to all voices," he said.

Pugh said the panel will review the Amnesty report, but also plans to talk about existing use-of-force policies with police agencies — which legislators do not wish to further alienate.

"Let's not make [any new standard] so restrictive that people feel they can't do their jobs," she said. "We want police in our communities, but we want them to respect our communities."

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