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Baltimore police ask state commission to help make it easier and quicker to fire officers accused of crimes

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Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison wants to be able to fire officers charged with crimes more quickly, telling a state commission Monday that state law makes it too difficult to get rid of officers who are charged or “likely” to be charged with misdemeanors and felonies.

Speaking to the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing, Harrison’s chief of staff, Eric Melancon, said the current process keeps charged officers in their departments for sometimes over a year after they’d been convicted of misdemeanors. Harrison wants the state legislature to change the law and wants the policing commission to lend its support.

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State law doesn’t allow officers charged with misdemeanors to be terminated until they go before an internal review board, according to Melancon. Officers charged with felonies cannot be terminated until they are convicted in court, Melancon said.

Other states already have similar structures to quickly remove officers, Melancon said, pointing to Minneapolis and the firing of the officers involved in the death of George Floyd in May, before their criminal trials.

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“If George Floyd were to happen in Baltimore City, we would not be able to terminate those officers,” Melancon said. “And that is what we believe is most appropriate in that kind of case.”

The proposal is preliminary and would require further work on the department’s disciplinary policies so that they would be in line with the new proposal. Only the state legislature can make changes to the state Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which affords wide protections to police officers.

A representative for the union that represents the department’s rank-and-file officers did not respond to a request for comment.

Some commission members pushed back on the changes Baltimore is seeking, saying that it seemingly puts the burden of guilt on the accused officer, rather than on those making the accusations.

The Commission to Restore Trust in Policing was created more than 18 months ago to shine light on Baltimore Police’s Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal after more than a dozen city officers were charged or convicted of a host of federal crimes, receiving prison sentences as long as 25 years.

Committee member Gary McLhinney — the former chief of Maryland Transportation Authority Police, now with the Department of Public Safety and Corrections — said he is concerned with making sure accused officers get due process.

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He argued that the proposal would negate protections afforded to officers accused of a crime, saying that “we have a presumption of innocence ... the burden is on us to prove it.” McLhinney said, “I think the protections need to be there in some fashion.”

McLhinney also said that the changes Baltimore police are seeking wouldn’t make much of a difference in practical terms.

Right now departments can suspend officers without pay if they’re charged with a felony, attorney Meghan Casey said at Monday’s meeting, and the state can remove an officer’s police certification, as it did to the officer involved in Anton Black’s death last year. Someone who is decertified may no longer act as a law enforcement officer in the state.

McLhinney said that if an officer isn’t being paid and can’t act in an official capacity, they are “just a name on a spreadsheet” while awaiting termination.

Melancon said that isn’t the case; those officers still receive health benefits and insurance protections, whatever their reduced role may be. He added that Harrison and the Baltimore police department want to set up a system in which terminated officers must “sue to get their job back.”

“For us, right now, all of the benefit of the doubt is given to the officer,” Melancon added.

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