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Carroll County lawmakers lament over ‘one size fits all’ police reform bills

Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees speaks during a press conference in Hampstead Thursday, March 11, 2021 announcing federal charges against an Ohio man accused in an October package bomb attack near Manchester. With DeWees, are from left, Maryland State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci, Carroll County Commissioner Stephen Wantz and Special Agent in Charge Tim Jones of the BATF Baltimore Field Office.
Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees speaks during a press conference in Hampstead Thursday, March 11, 2021 announcing federal charges against an Ohio man accused in an October package bomb attack near Manchester. With DeWees, are from left, Maryland State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci, Carroll County Commissioner Stephen Wantz and Special Agent in Charge Tim Jones of the BATF Baltimore Field Office. (Dylan Slagle)

While most officials agree that body-worn cameras for law enforcement officers will be beneficial to officers as well as the public, Carroll County legislators are concerned about a number of other police reform bills that made it through the General Assembly.

After the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis last year, the outrage and protests that followed quickly prompted a wave of police reform throughout the nation.

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Maryland lawmakers approved sweeping police reform legislation through the Democratic-led legislature, which was able to enact several changes by overriding Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes of certain bills.

In a May 17 opinion article from Sen. Justin Ready, he wrote the 2021 General Assembly “was a very difficult session for a host of reasons.”

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Last week, Ready raised concerned about an environment being created where it’s assumed the police officer is guilty of wrongdoing when an encounter ends badly.

Ready said police traditionally have been disciplined by chiefs and sheriffs but there was a desire among some lawmakers to make that process more transparent. Under House Bill 670, the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights was repealed and mandates put in place that each county establish a police accountability board to recommend disciplinary action for misconduct.

“Police officers will face a patchwork of standards in different counties,” Ready said of the change. “Local political pressure will rule the process instead of objective standards.”

Another bill of concern for Ready is Senate Bill 178, which allows police officers’ personnel records to be released to the public, including unsubstantiated claims, he said.

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“In our rapid response, social media world this provision will have a terrible chilling effect on proactive policing and make recruitment of new officers even harder than it already is,” he stated.

In his opinion, the most dangerous provision in the police bill package is the new “Use of Force” standard for the state in Senate Bill 71, Ready said.

Although he agrees with parts of the bill, such as the requirement for law enforcement agencies to use of body-worn cameras by July 2023, he takes issue with the “Use of Force” standard changing from “perspective of a reasonable police officer” in court to the “totality of the circumstances and situation” or “proportional.”

“In other words, the officer has to evaluate the force being used against him by the suspect in the moment and only mirror or slightly exceed that force,” Ready said. “The penalty for the officer misjudging … in the heat of the moment when using any force is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.”

He said “so many officers are trying their best and continue to get disrespected,” adding, legislators should not be taking a one-size-fits-all approach when addressing issues with policing.

Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, agrees one size does not fit all as rural Carroll County does not face the same challenges as some other counties.

“These bills will effect Carroll County … The rules are for everybody,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

Krebs pointed out Carroll has one of the lowest crime rates in the state and does not experience many issues with their police officers.

“We respect our police, we appreciate our police,” she said. “It’s not all perfect but it’s a whole other world down here.”

Ten years from now, Krebs said, she doesn’t believe places like Baltimore City, where there are high rates of crime, will be safer because of the recent legislation.

“Weeding out a few bad apples has morphed into a full-on assault against police, who are struggling every day to protect the community,” Krebs said.

She mentioned “the most egregious” reform bill from this year is House Bill 1049. The legislation states that a law enforcement officer is not immune from civil or criminal liability for acts causing a physical or mental injury that occurred while the officer was acting in an official capacity.

This provision would make it easier for citizens to sue police officers for certain violations.

“It makes officers liable personably for everything they do,” Krebs said. “It’s unprecedented … The emphasis on this session was calling law enforcement bad. It ruins the community relationship with police and undermines the public’s confidence.”

Rodney Morris, president of the Carroll County NAACP Branch, pushed back at that notion, saying “change is needed.”

“Police departments do need to have transparency just like any other business,” Morris said. “I hope they can look at the changes being made as a way of bringing credibility back to the agency rather than an affront to their profession.

“We’re in this together,” Morris added. “The community needs law enforcement and law enforcement needs the community”

But Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees said on Thursday he personally and professionally believes the legislature wasn’t looking to enact police reform but rather punish law enforcement with the package of bills.

He called the legislation “knee-jerk reactions rather than systematic reform.”

On the repealing of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, he said it was “replaced with nothing” and instead that power is in the hands of county executive branches.

“It makes no since at all,” he said. “I’ve never had an issue with the LEOBR.”

The sheriff noted he has a problem with police officer records being public, as well.

“Without a doubt that will harm public safety,” he said.

Out of fear of having complaints on their record, DeWees predicted some officers could become less proactive, which could lead to more violence and crime.

“My organization won’t stop being proactive, fair and use appropriate force when needed … We won’t just wait for something to happen,” he said.

Although he’s not against officers being required to use body-worn cameras, he pointed out the process is expensive and funding is not being provided to cover the cost.

During a May budget work session, the Carroll County Commissioners voted to move the funds necessary to purchase body-worn cameras for the sheriff’s office to this fiscal year, contingent on receiving a federal grant.

According to Ted Zaleski, director of management and budget for the county, the grant is a congressional earmark in the amount of $1.5 million, intended to help purchase body-worn and car-mounted cameras. As of now, it is unknown when the county will learn whether it will receive the money.

If the grant is approved, $638,400 would get moved up to this fiscal year’s budget, covering part of the cost of the cameras, additional positions needed and a one-time space modification at the old North Carroll High School, which will house the digital evidence unit.

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