Maryland police union officials oppose changes to rights law

Maryland police unions say the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights is working well.

Representatives of Maryland police unions urged a legislative panel Monday to uphold a law that protects the rights of accused officers, but their managers told the panel they're open to changes to improve public perceptions.

The differing messages came at a hearing of the General Assembly's Public Safety and Policing Workgroup on the state's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. The law, known as LEOBR, has been the target of critics of the criminal justice system who contend it protects "bad apples" on police forces from internal discipline.

Frank Boston III, legislative counsel for the state Fraternal Order of Police, said the current law is fair and has been working well to protect the public and officers.

"It weeds out the bad police officers, the bad actors and it serves to protect the good officers who are only doing their jobs," he said.

Boston acknowledged that in the current political climate, with the conduct of police officers a matter of national scrutiny, lawmakers may want to make changes. He said the union would work with the panel as it considers changes to recommend to the legislature.

"We're not here to be adversarial," Boston said.

Representatives of their superiors, the state's police chiefs and sheriffs, testified that the 40-year-old law is in need of revision and signaled that they are sympathetic to some of the changes suggested by such groups as the NAACP and ACLU of Maryland.

Among those revisions is cutting the 10-day period in which an officer suspected of misconduct has to retain a lawyer before they must submit to a departmental disciplinary interrogation. Advocates say the officers don't need nearly that long to find counsel and say the 10-day rule makes it easier for police to collude on a cover story. FOP representatives contended that collusion simply doesn't occur and denied any need to change the rule.

The police chiefs and sheriffs staked out a middle ground. Their witnesses said the rule doesn't impede them significantly because their internal investigators seldom want to interrogate suspected cases until they have thoroughly investigated the case. But they signaled that they're willing to see a change if it allays public suspicions about the process.

"If the perception from the public is that this is so important to our jobs, let's make it three days or five days," said Phil Hinkle, chief of staff to the Charles County Sheriff's Office. The law, he said, can be improved.

"We have a perception problem that we don't fire bad cops, but we do fire bad cops," he said.

The chiefs and sheriffs are working on proposals to revise the law and expect to release them in about 30 days, said Karen J. Kruger, general counsel for the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association.

Other changes being sought by advocates and resisted by the police unions include giving civilians a role in adjudicating police investigations.

Herbert R. Weiner, general counsel for the state FOP, told the panel that fellow police officers are best able to determine whether another office has committed misconduct.

"Who would be the judges of police officers? Plumbers?" he said.

But the Rev. Todd Yeary, legislative chair for the NAACP, had no problem with that.

"The plumber can vote. The plumber can run for public office. The plumber can serve in the General Assembly," Yeary said. If the plumber can help write laws governing police, he asked, why couldn't he participate in a trial board.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller formed the work group after a legislative session that saw many proposed bills on police reform but little in the way of concrete action. Legislative leaders pointed out that it was the first year of the legislature's four-year term and that many freshmen legislators were still learning the ropes.

The work group includes senators and delegates of both parties, representing urban, suburban and rural jurisdictions. Among its members are lawmakers with experience as police and prosecutors.

The impetus for police reforms grew after the death of Freddie Gray, 25, of injuries suffered while in Baltimore police custody set off rioting in the city. Six police officers were indicted for their roles in Gray's arrest and transport, charged with assault and manslaughter — and in the case of one officer, second-degree murder.

The hearing Monday was the work group's first to focus specifically of the police bill of rights, which spells out protections for officers accused of misconduct. Critics of the law, including the ACLU of Maryland and the NAACP, contend the law go too far in shielding officers in cases of brutality and other misconduct.

Police unions contend the law, first adopted in 1974 but amended many times since, is necessary to protect their members from frivolous charges and to ensure due process.

Kruger told the panel that Maryland became the first state to adopt such a law in the wake of the civil unrest of the late 1960s.

Leading off the hearing with a briefing on the law's details, Kruger said any law that has been on the books for 40 years needs to be updated, including some made obsolete by technology.

Among the changes she urged was to drop the references in the current law to "police brutality" and to change them to "excessive use of force."

Del. Curt Anderson, the House co-chair of the work group, said he believes there is a consensus of the panel to make that change. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said that while some advocates might want to do away with the 10-day entirely, the work group is more likely to seek a middle ground.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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