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Annapolis 'die-in' calls attention to push for police discipline reforms

Advocacy groups hold a “die-in” in Annapolis Monday night to call attention to their push to reform the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, a state law that gives protections to police officers accused of misconduct.
Advocacy groups hold a “die-in” in Annapolis Monday night to call attention to their push to reform the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, a state law that gives protections to police officers accused of misconduct. (Pamela Wood)

One by one, names of the dead were read, and each time an activist slumped to the cold, hard stones in Annapolis.

The names represented the dozens of people who have died after encounters with police in Maryland in recent years. The frigid "die-in" on Lawyers Mall outside the State House was held Monday to draw attention to proposed changes to how police officers are disciplined in brutality cases.

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"We want officers to be held accountable. … Justice will not come until we fix this broken system," said Marion Gray-Hopkins, whose son, Gary Hopkins Jr., was fatally shot by a Prince George's County police officer in 1999. The officer was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

With local and national attention focused squarely on police brutality for the past year, activists hope lawmakers amend the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, which critics say is too protective of bad officers.

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"We're in a time and a place with cellphone video footage that people can no longer ignore what is happening out there," said Sara Love, public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland, which helped plan the event. "These are things that people have known for years, but it was very difficult, honestly, to get legislators to take it seriously."

The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups are working together as the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability to push for changes to the police discipline system. The coalition also includes the liberal group Progressive Maryland, immigrant rights group CASA, Baltimore-based Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and several religious organizations.

The coalition endorses most of the recommendations proposed last week by a task force of lawmakers, including cutting in half the length of time an officer accused of wrongdoing can wait before speaking to investigators, adding whistle-blower protections for officers who help with internal affairs investigations, and removing a prohibition on civilians from serving on disciplinary trial boards.

The coalition also wants to go further, including removing any time limit for citizens to file complaints of police brutality and allowing more third parties to make such complaints.

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The coalition also opposes a proposal to switch the composition of trial boards from three officers of the chief's choosing to one from the chief, one from the accused officer and one agreed upon by both. Such a setup can result in a trial board that's stacked in favor of the accused officer, Love said.

"You're giving the [Fraternal Order of Police] control over discipline," Love said.

The FOP, meanwhile, opposes any changes to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights. The group held its annual legislative meeting Monday, just as the ACLU and its allies were preparing for their die-in.

"We look forward to working with the legislators, but we are opposed to any and all changes," said Frank D. Boston III, a lobbyist for the FOP. "We think it works fine."

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