Advocates, police square off over brutality legislation

Civil rights advocates and families of alleged victims of police brutality urged state lawmakers Thursday to improve law enforcement accountability, saying Maryland is not immune to widespread concerns about the use of excessive force by officers.

"Enough is enough," said Marion Gray-Hopkins, whose 19-year-old son, Gary, was shot to death by a Prince George's County police officer 15 years ago.


She joined rights advocates and others at a news conference before a Senate hearing on several bills. One would spell out when police wearing body cameras must turn them on. Another would make it easier to file excessive force complaints against officers and speed up internal investigations of such incidents.

"We're not here to pick on cops, only bad cops," said Ryan Dennis, a spokesman for the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Equality.


But law enforcement officials turned out in force to oppose the bills, arguing that they go too far and would be counterproductive.

A police union official warned that changing the rules for internal investigations could worsen police-community relations rather than improve them. And a spokesman for the state's police chiefs said that the body camera standards under consideration are so complicated they would discourage police departments from fitting their officers with them.

While the deaths of unarmed black men during confrontations with police in Missouri and New York have sparked national debate, advocates say incidents in Maryland have fueled similar mistrust of law enforcement in minority communities.

A six-month Baltimore Sun investigation, for instance, found that Baltimore taxpayers had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 to settle 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. Officers had battered dozens of residents during questionable arrests, the investigation revealed, resulting in broken bones, head trauma, organ failure and even death.

Responding to community anger over those revelations, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to make a comprehensive review of the Police Department.

The mayor and police commissioner also have said they support body cameras as a way to rebuild public trust, and other police departments are moving to adopt them as well.

Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat, said he believes there needs to be a statewide "framework" for how the cameras are used. His bill would not require police departments to use cameras. But in those that do, he said, officers need to know when they should be filming, and when they should not.

"Ultimately, what we're trying to do is bridge law enforcement and our citizens, build that relationship," he said.

Civil rights advocates endorsed the bill, particularly a provision barring the use of the cameras to film protest demonstrations. They said the cameras should not be used to spy on constitutionally protected activity.

But local officials, prosecutors and police chiefs complained that Ramirez's bill would cause problems. They urged lawmakers to leave it up to each department to write its own policy.

"This is micromanaging when I can turn cameras on and when [to] turn it off," said Joseph Cassilly, Harford County state's attorney. He called the bill confusing and restrictive, and predicted it would complicate prosecution of criminal cases by prompting litigation over whether the cameras had been properly used.

John Fitzgerald, speaking for the Maryland association of police chiefs, suggested the prohibition on filming protests was counterproductive. If violence flares, Fitzgerald, chief of the Chevy Chase municipal force, said he wants cameras running so he could be sure his officers act appropriately.


Another point of contention is a provision requiring officers to get civilians' consent to film when they're not in a public setting or dealing with emergency or criminal activity. Maryland law generally requires the consent of anyone being recorded, and Ramirez said that complicates how body cameras are used.

But opponents said the legislation is too rigid. With officers facing a wide variety of situations in the field, they argue that the standards could inappropriately restrict them in deciding when to film and when not to.

"Officers would have to choose between common sense and violating the law," Fitzgerald said.

Even some supporters of the body-camera bill cautioned that it needed to be tweaked.

Nicholas Blendy, an aide to Rawlings-Blake, pointed to estimates that body cameras could cost Baltimore $5.5 million to $7.9 million a year. He urged lawmakers to take those costs into consideration and not set standards that are too detailed.

Advocates and officials also squared off over proposed changes to a Maryland law that grants police officers certain rights in defending themselves against misconduct complaints.

David Rocah, of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the state's "law enforcement officer's bill of rights" one of the most protective of police in the country. He told lawmakers it was hindering investigations of civilians' complaints and fueling public mistrust.

The bill put in by Sen. Lisa Gladden, a Baltimore city Democrat, would do away with a requirement that citizens file an excessive-force complaint within 90 days of the incident. It also would eliminate a provision barring questioning of a police officer accused of misconduct for 10 days after an incident.

The 10-day rule, Rocah said, "more than anything else drives the public perception that law enforcement officers are playing by a special set of rules."

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a lawyer himself, pointed out that the delay allows an accused police officer time to get a lawyer to advise him on his rights.

And law enforcement officials and organizations countered that the changes proposed by Gladden would tip the system against police officers and even violate their constitutional rights.

Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, asserted in written testimony that the bill would in fact "create an even deeper divide between law enforcement and the community it is sworn to defend."

In the case of Gray-Hopkins' son, officials admitted no wrongdoing on the part of the officer or police department. Officers involved in recent deaths in Ferguson, Mo., and New York were cleared of wrongdoing.

A third accountability measure sought by civil rights advocates, which would have authorized a special prosecutor to investigate deaths at the hands of police, was withdrawn by the sponsor.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse, the lead Senate sponsor, said he pulled it so that the affected parties — including the Fraternal Order of Police, police chiefs and state's attorneys — could hammer out a deal with advocates before next year's session.

"I would rather see this done as a team effort," said Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat. "It makes a powerful statement to the community if we can do it that way."


Muse said that if no agreement is reached, he would still reintroduce the bill next year. He said the state prosecutor had not expressed any reservations about the legislation.


Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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