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Havre de Grace mayor, City Council members take issue with Maryland’s new police reform measures

On the same day Havre de Grace’s incumbent mayor and three incumbent council members were sworn in for their latest terms, and the mayor and six-member City Council began their 2021-22 legislative session, city leaders expressed strong opposition to the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, passed this spring by the General Assembly.

City officials derided the law, which includes the repeal of the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, for establishing unclear standards of discipline of police officers and creating conditions which harm recruitment and retention.

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“Think about the passion that a man or a woman must have to want to be an officer to begin with, that passion where you want to help, where you make a difference,” Mayor William T. Martin said.”

“And then, think about how royally screwed up these legislators in Annapolis made everything, that they take good men and women that just want to leave.”

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The mayor noted that there are three vacancies in the Havre de Grace Police Department, and those officers have left, not for another law enforcement agency with higher pay, but to get out of the police profession, a situation Martin called “insane.”

He urged people to “think about what officers put up with,” such as domestic violence calls at 2 a.m., intoxicated drivers or knife fights.

“That doesn’t make them leave,” Martin said. “They’re ready for the next day, to go back and do it again.”

Martin delivered his remarks on the police reform bill during the City Council meeting Monday evening, following swearing-in ceremonies for him and three council members who had been re-elected May 4. Comments by the mayor and council members about the accountability act came amid a number of positive comments they made, thanking voters for their confidence, congratulating their opponents on running good campaigns and setting the tone on city initiatives in the coming years.

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“These aren’t unsurmountable challenges,” the mayor said of the police accountability law. “These are just things that are going to take some work.”

Martin, who ran unopposed for the second consecutive election cycle, won a fourth term as mayor, and it is the first term in which he will serve three years. He has served three two-year terms since first being elected in 2015 and starts a three-year term following voters’ approval of a charter amendment extending the mayor’s term in 2020.

Incumbent council members David Martin, Jason Robertson and Carolyn Zinner, who faced challengers Richard Wehner and Tammy Lynn Schneegas, were re-elected, too.

All four were sworn in during the City Council meeting Monday by Harford County Circuit Court Judge Paul Ishak. The mayor and council then went into closed session to select a council president for the next year, and they came back into open session and voted to return David Glenn as president of the City Council.

Glenn also gave his thoughts on the state’s police accountability act, noting that he has “some real issues with what’s happening down in Annapolis, with that.”

“I really think that our legislators have to pay more attention, on how things really, really work and what a police officer faces on a daily basis.” he said.

The bill came before the majority-Democratic legislature during its 2021 session, after months of protests and racial justice initiatives in multiple communities following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in May of 2020.

Derek Chauvin, the officer who was recorded on video while kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, was convicted of murder and manslaughter by a Minnesota jury April 20. The three other officers charged in Floyd’s death are scheduled to be tried on federal civil rights violations in August, and then face trial in state court next March.

The Maryland police accountability act, classified as House Bill 670 or Chapter 59, is expected to have nationwide impact as it includes the repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. The bill passed the House of Delegates, 98-40, on April 7 and passed the Maryland Senate, 31-15, the same day.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed the bill April 9, but the House and Senate overrode the governor’s veto, again by large majority votes, on April 10. The act is scheduled to take effect July 1, 2022, according to the General Assembly website.

“The issue of the repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, in particular, is of great concern as it is predicated to lead to an exodus of police officers locally and throughout the state of Maryland,” Mayor Martin said Monday, reading from a prepared statement.

Activists against police brutality have sought to repeal Maryland’s LEOBR, which dates to the 1970s, for a number of years.

“We need to repeal LEOBR so that it is easier to hold police officers accountable for their misconduct that harms communities and creates distrust,” according to a statement by the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability.

“While we need to do more, repealing LEOBR is a necessary step toward accountability by making sure that officers facing discipline do not get extra rights that are not afforded to other state government and civilian employees,” the statement continues.

The 2021 act establishes civilian police accountability boards in each county, as well as county administrative charging committees and a state-level administrative charging committee, also composed of civilians.

Martin described the LEOBR as something that is “used by law enforcement leadership as a management tool, a tool that standardized disciplinary procedures across the state.”

“I feel that the repeal of this law is problematic, because it prevents police leadership from being able to discipline law enforcement officers, and prevents leadership from maintaining order among the ranks,” he added.

The new law subjects officer discipline to “a confusing, unclear bureaucratic maze,” plus it “removes the chief of police from having any say in how officers receive their discipline,” Martin said.

The mayor stressed that city leaders are not opposed to improving law enforcement, but he described the new state law as being written in an “unclear manner,” and that the final product came with “last-minute amendments” that other lawmakers and members of the public had little or no time to review.

“It is very difficult and frustrating when the General Assembly passes a law that is so ambiguous, we don’t know what to tell our law enforcement officers, nor do we know what the future of law enforcement looks like,” Martin said.

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“This creates a lot of confusion and anxiety for men and women who work every day to protect us.”

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The mayor said the law has affected Havre de Grace’s ability to hire qualified police officers, which in turn could harm public safety in the city. Martin said he and Police Chief Teresa Walter “don’t pick bad officers, and it’s hard to find, sometimes, good officers, especially when nobody wants to be a police officer.”

“All this ‘defund the police’ stuff, it’s a bunch of crap,” he said. “Every profession in the world has good people, and it has some people that maybe need a little help, discipline, or maybe some removal.”

Councilmembers Casi Boyer, as well as David Martin and Carolyn Zinner, also weighed in on the state law.

Boyer said she and her husband, who is a police officer, talk every day about the current conditions for law enforcement. She noted that her husband has wanted to be a police officer since childhood and recently was honored by his agency for his actions, and those of a fellow officer, to perform CPR on a woman who was lying on the shoulder of I-695, unconscious, and save her life.

“Now he’s, after a 30-year career where he never missed a day of work ... he’s considering what is the future for him,” Boyer said.

She encouraged people to become informed about the new law and push their local legislators to “stand up to their leadership” in Annapolis and seek changes to improve the act before it takes effect.

“I would like all of the police officers to know that we in Havre de Grace are very lucky to have them as our public servants,” Boyer said. “They care very much about the city, and they care very much about everybody who lives here, and for that we are blessed.”

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