The 2021 legislative session concluded just over a month ago. It was a very difficult session for a whole host of reasons. The idea of balanced, reasonable approaches to tough, controversial issues was swept aside in a rush to push a more “woke,” progressive agenda.
The battle over police “reform” was probably the best example of this problem. I have consistently opposed the defunding and attacking of police departments. Scapegoating police will not help already unsafe communities. However, there were several areas where the General Assembly could have had common sense, bipartisan compromise. There were very aggressively anti-police activist groups that were arguing for drastic changes but I watched law enforcement representatives come to the table with ideas on what they needed to be able to do to execute their jobs effectively — and protect the public — while also addressing need for some reforms.
The Senate worked extensively on nine bills in the first half of the session. I didn’t agree with every bill, but did vote for ones dealing with body cameras, mental health support and improving transparency. The Senate’s original package at least acknowledged the need for balance between the unique work and sacrifices of law enforcement officers and the desire for more transparency and community involvement in policing.
Unfortunately, the House of Delegates took those bills and turned them into four bills crammed with extreme, anti-police provisions which I will describe below. They passed them back to the Senate where our Democrat leadership caved into the pressure from radical House Democrats and left-wing groups some of whom protested at individual senators’ homes. Senate and House Republicans vigorously opposed them but these distorted bills passed. Gov. Hogan vetoed the bills but the General Assembly overrode his vetoes on a mostly party-line vote. Here are three specific examples of why these bills are so troubling:
First, police traditionally have been disciplined by chiefs and sheriffs and there was a uniform system. There were discussions about wanting more transparency and that could have been an area of compromise. But instead, under HB 670, police officers will face a patchwork of standards in different counties. Local political pressure will rule the process instead of objective standards.
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Second, SB 178 allows police officers’ private personnel records to be released to the public. Not just actual instances of wrong-doing mind you, but all complaints — including false and disproven allegations can be made public. In other words, even when complaints are completely disproven, the officer’s personnel record will still be publicly available. 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. Senate Republicans offered an amendment to make this new provision apply to state lawmakers’ personnel records too. The Democratic majority rejected that amendment on a party-line vote.
However, in my view, the most dangerous provision in this anti-police package was the creation of a new “Use of Force” standard for the state in SB 71. It changes the standard from “perspective of a reasonable police officer” in court to one of the “totality of the circumstances of the situation.”
The new law does not define “totality.” Use of force is required to be “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. The penalty for the officer misjudging “proportionality” in the heat of the moment when using any force is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. It also exposes them to civil liability.
We are facing an epidemic of attacks on police right now in this country. Recently an Eastern Shore small town officer lost his life trying to stop an assault on an elderly couple. He was by himself because of funding shortages and recruiting difficulties. Meanwhile, Baltimore continues to descend further into violence while many of its city officials get defensive instead of backing up their officers and supporting tougher sentences on repeat violent offenders. Without a course correction of these anti-law and order policies that the General Assembly just enacted, things will get worse not better.
I’ve tried to lay out some of the specific problems in these bills and how they will lead to less safe communities. I can only hope that adjustments can be made in the next legislative session as the impact of these bad laws becomes even more clear.
In closing, I’m always open to hearing ideas and would welcome your feedback. Thank you for the opportunity to serve in Annapolis.
Justin Ready is a state senator representing District 5.