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Carroll County commissioners say state’s police reform legislation will add layers of bureaucracy, ‘hollow out the force’

As legislative liaison Mike Fowler briefed Carroll County’s Board of Commissioners on Thursday on legislative action from the Maryland General Assembly’s recently completed session, the five county commissioners were attentive, but largely quiet.

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The commissioners broke in to express their frustration and disappointment with the police reform package, saying it will undermine law enforcement and hurt recruitment and retention.

“It was strictly political. Democrats vs. Republicans ... with complete disregard to rural counties,” Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1 said during the open session. “It takes away the ability for us to do what we need to do to protect our citizens. This is wrong in every sense of the word.”

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The legislation became a priority in the General Assembly following nationwide protests last summer over police brutality following the death of George Floyd, whose neck was knelt on for nine minutes by a Minneapolis police officer.

Activists in Maryland have campaigned for changes for decades, citing scores of deaths involving police over the years, including Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015 and Anton Black in Caroline County in 2018.

The reforms approved during this year’s session include setting limits on when police officers can use force and creating penalties for those who violate those standards, establishing a new disciplinary procedure for officers accused of wrongdoing that gives civilian review boards a significant role and also allowing the public release of complaints against officers and disciplinary records, currently kept confidential, even if those complaints are found to be baseless.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed some of the measures last week, but Democrat majorities in the state Senate and House of Delegates voted to overturn those vetoes.

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Carroll’s commissioners agreed that reform is needed in some places in Maryland, just not everywhere. Rothstein said Carroll is being forced into a “Baltimore County/Montgomery County/Prince George’s County way of thinking.”

Rothstein, a retired U.S. Army colonel, wondered why anyone would want to enter the force under such circumstances, which he likened to situations he experienced in the military.

“We had programs that were put in place that were shortsighted, talking about in the military, and it made everyone look over their shoulder before they took action,” Rothstein said. “And the last thing you want is anyone in uniform to have to think about, ‘what’s going to happen if I do X?’ You’re trained and designed to do X.”

Wantz decried the “layers and layers of bureaucracy” that were added and was particularly vocal about the civilian oversight boards that must be created.

“Who are you going to find in a jurisdiction like Carroll ... that’s going to want to sit on a board that does this to law enforcement,” he asked. “And if you do find them, they probably shouldn’t be on this board. ... It’s ridiculous.”

Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, said he thinks the legislation is “ripe for a legal challenge.”

Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said the measures are unnecessary in Carroll, where “we have a police force that’s really on top of things.”

The entire board agreed that the measures could lead to veteran law enforcement officers filing for early retirement and prospective officers reconsidering the line of work.

“We need to have faith in our police officers. ... It’s not blind faith, but you have to have faith and I don’t know why anybody would want to be put in that position,” Rothstein said. “It will hollow out the force. ...

“We can say we support you Sheriff DeWees and we support every man and woman in blue, and that’s great, but that doesn’t mean much when this is now enforced.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Bryn Stole contributed to this report.

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