Sun police reporter Justin George talks about a report issued by the Maryland ACLU on deadly encounters with police officers between 2010 and 2014. (Baltimore Sun)
As state lawmakers consider several bills related to the use of force by police, the American Civil Liberties Union reported Wednesday that 109 people died after encounters with police in Maryland between 2010 and 2014.
Nearly 70 percent of those who died during the encounters were black, and more than 40 percent of the people were unarmed, the ACLU of Maryland reported. The advocacy group found that blacks, who make up less than a third of the state population, were five times more likely to die from interactions with police than whites.
The report comes amid national discussion of police tactics following the high-profile deaths last year of several unarmed black males at the hands of police officers.
Maryland legislators are considering more than 10 bills related to police misconduct or brutality. Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the report gives the proposals a needed boost.
"Now is kind of a crucial time because we're voting on a lot of these bills in the area of police misconduct," said Anderson, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee and chairs the Baltimore House delegation. "For some reason, I don't think that the gravity of the situation has hit a lot of legislators.
"The report is going to be important in opening the eyes of many legislators that there is a problem and we can't just sit on our hands and do nothing."
Less than 2 percent of the officers involved in the 109 deaths were criminally charged, the ACLU reported. Police shootings accounted for 79 percent of the deaths.
The group said it began its research after learning that the state did not keep track of the number of fatal police shootings, in-custody deaths or other deadly law enforcement interactions.
The ACLU said it intended to "shed more light" on the use of force by police while making the case that the state should require law enforcement agencies to report all deadly interactions.
"This is borne out of desperation in wanting to be able to have a handle on what the basic facts were," ACLU staff attorney Sonia Kumar said.
Police and police union officials say deaths need to be examined individually. They say many are justified, and others arise amid conditions over which police have no control.
David Rose, second vice president for the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said the public doesn't know about the many encounters where officers are in danger and defuse situations without force.
While Baltimore County's population has grown, he said, complaints about excessive force are "at almost a decade low."
"Officers use restraint every day and take potentially violent situations and resolve them in peaceful, nonviolent manners — but those don't get attention," Rose said.
The ACLU found that 31 people died after police encounters in Baltimore, the most in the state. Prince George's County had 21 deaths, Baltimore County had 13 and Anne Arundel and Howard counties each had four.
Baltimore County police said it had more "officer-involved deaths" — 16 — than the report listed.
County police said they welcomed the ACLU study. But they added that they already provide the public with information on use-of-force incidents they consider serious using social media accounts and the department's website.
Baltimore police said they have taken several steps in recent years to become more transparent on such incidents. Police created a Force Investigation Team last year to review all encounters that resulted in serious injury or death. The results of those investigations are posted on the department's website, Capt. Eric Kowalczyk said.
Police have acknowledged that not all reports are posted immediately. Since creating the website last June, police listed 34 use-of-force incidents for 2014 and released reports on seven. This year, police have logged five incidents but have not posted any reports from those encounters.
"In order to increase public trust the department has worked to be as transparent as possible within the law," Kowalczyk said.
The ACLU said it compiled data using news reports and records obtained from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. The group defined a police encounter as any interaction with an officer, including pursuits. Deaths in routine car accident and deaths that occurred in police buildings not involving an officer were not counted.
The group acknowledged that news sources might not provide a complete picture, but said no other option existed.
"We've put this out there for what it's worth, but we are the first to say we are handicapped because there is no official reporting," Kumar said.
Chris Brown, the mother of a 17-year-old youth who was killed by an off-duty Baltimore County police officer in 2012, said she can't comprehend why the state doesn't track such incidents.
She said doing so could show law enforcement agencies ways to decrease the need for force. She said life-saving techniques and community relations could be improved, too.
"I'm not clear on what we don't see," she said. "I just feel like there's got to be a better way of policing. My son didn't have to die at all."
Brown's son, Christopher, was with a group of teens who threw a rock at the front door of county police Officer James D. Laboard.
Laboard, who was off-duty, chased the teens and wound up in a struggle with Brown.
Brown died of asphyxiation. Laboard was charged with manslaughter but was acquitted by a jury.
State legislators last year passed "Christopher's Law," which requires police officers to be trained in CPR, cultural sensitivity, proper use of force and proper methods to deal with the physically and mentally disabled.
Del. Jill P. Carter, the Baltimore Democrat who proposed the legislation, said she hopes the ACLU report leads to more reforms that increase law enforcement transparency, discipline and education.
"In the overwhelming majority of these cases, there is no accountability for officers that commit these homicides," Carter said. "They are rarely prosecuted and even more rarely convicted if prosecuted."
Lawmakers are considering changes to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, including eliminating a 10-day waiting period to question officers after an incident involving force, expanding a 90-day deadline for people to file complaints against police after an interaction, requiring administrative trial boards to be more diverse and making public the names of officers who commit acts of brutality or other misconduct, as well as the sanction imposed.
A Baltimore Sun investigation showed that Baltimore has paid nearly $6 million in court judgments and settlements since 2011 in about 100 lawsuits alleging police brutality. The cases resulted in broken bones, head trauma, organ failure and in some instances death.
"I believe this is a definitive moment in our state, and it would be irresponsible to continue to ignore the gravity of the problem," Carter said.
Tyrone West was killed in 2013 after a traffic stop in Baltimore.
Police say he struggled during an arrest. An autopsy showed that he died of a heart condition exacerbated by the struggle and summer heat. His family and community activists say witnesses saw police beat him and an independent review of the case commissioned by police concluded that officers made tactical errors that "potentially aggravated the situation."
No officer was charged. Tawanda Jones, West's sister, said the ACLU report showed the need for action.
"It's time for change," Jones said. "It's time to weed out the bad ones and be accountable. We're just asking for accountability."
Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.