Police brutality reforms sought by city leaders failing in Annapolis

Legislation aimed at curbing police brutality takes a beating in Annapolis.

Legislation sought by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other city leaders to deal with police brutality complaints has failed in Annapolis.

One bill introduced at the mayor's behest has been killed, and the other is being quashed in committee. With a week left in the annual 90-day legislative session, only a handful of relatively minor bills remain alive in the General Assembly that would seek to hold police more accountable for how they treat citizens.

One of the surviving bills, which gained preliminary approval in the House on Friday, seeks to help reinvigorate the city's troubled civilian review board. Another passed by the House would require law enforcement agencies to report annually on each officer-involved death.

But advocates say they're bitterly disappointed by the meager results of their campaign to reform the system for disciplining police. They rallied in Annapolis and testified for multiple bills, including several seeking changes in the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights and spelling out how and when police should use body cameras to record their interactions with the public.

"It's discouraging that they're going against so many bills, and so many bills are not coming out," said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, past president of the Baltimore NAACP. "There's got to be some compromise," he added. "There need to be some improvements."

Advocates felt they had momentum on their side in pushing for more police accountability. A Baltimore Sun investigation last year found that city taxpayers had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 to settle 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. Officers had battered dozens of residents during questionable arrests, the investigation revealed, resulting in broken bones, head trauma, organ failure and even death. The findings were amplified by a nationwide uproar over police-involved deaths of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York.

Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts asked for a civil rights review by the U.S. Department of Justice, and declared their support for outfitting officers with body cameras as a way to rebuild public trust. But the mayor also called for legislation to help crack down on police misconduct.

One bill, which would have created a new felony "misconduct in office" charge for officers, was killed by the House Judiciary Committee. Another measure would have made it easier to discipline officers without them having the right to appeal; it languishes in the House Appropriations Committee.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who heads that panel, said she does not intend to bring it to a vote. With law enforcement organizations solidly against it, she said, there's not enough time left in the legislative session to resolve all the concerns.

A third bill put in by several city lawmakers would have authorized Maryland's attorney general to prosecute police officers accused of excessive force. It was also killed in committee.

House Judiciary Committee leaders said they spiked that bill, as well as others relieving the state's attorney's office of responsibility for trying police brutality cases, because the other legal agencies aren't really set up to handle them. And, like McIntosh, they said they needed more time to weigh proposed changes to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights. They plan to study it after the session.

"It's a law that has been in effect for more than 40 years," said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who is vice chair of the Judiciary Committee. "It is not something that should be changed lightly."

A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said she intends to keep pressing for her stalled bill until the legislative session ends at midnight April 13.

"We think we have a real opportunity, in a reasonable and measured way, to make progress in building trust between the police and the community — and we're going to keep fighting until the end," said Kevin R. Harris, the mayor's spokesman.

Harris said the mayor has taken "a series of steps" on her own, contending that excessive force complaints are down while police trial board convictions are up. But he said Rawlings-Blake still believes legislative change is needed to do more.

"There's a real feeling as though police officers are playing by a different set of rules from everybody else," Harris said. "There's example after example where the Officers' Bill of Rights has been a barrier."

Leaders of the city and state Fraternal Order of Police dispute such criticism, and say they're glad lawmakers held back.

"Everybody's turning the Bill of Rights into a bogeyman," said Gene S. Ryan, president of Baltimore FOP Lodge 3. While it protects the rights of police officers accused of wrongdoing, Ryan said, "nowhere near does it keep bad officers here." He estimated that nearly 300 officers had been terminated in the past 12 years.

Vince Canales, president of the Maryland state FOP, said that while Rawlings-Blake may have been seeking legislative help to speed up the disciplinary process in Baltimore, her bill would have undermined due-process protections for police officers statewide. He contended that her bill was "totally unnecessary."

"There was an initial outcry that the process may not work as quickly as some would like to see it work," said Canales, "but no one could argue or contradict the fact that it still works."

The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriff's Association likewise said they feared that piecemeal changes to the law would undermine commanders' ability to discipline officers.

Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of Baltimore's House delegation, said he and other reform advocates made a strategic error in pushing so many different bills, instead of narrowing down the changes they were seeking and concentrating their efforts.

"It's easy to pick apart 14 or 15 different bills by nine or 10 different legislators," the city Democrat said. "We should have gotten together first ... and come up with a comprehensive approach."

Whatever the reason, advocates contend that lawmakers have failed to respond to an urgent need.

"They had a real opportunity to make some improvements in police practices and take steps to help improve the police community relationship," said Sara Love, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "This issue isn't going away."

Baltimore Sun reporter Mark Puente contributed to this article.

twheeler@baltsun.com

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