Police discipline bill hits snag as some city senators reject compromise

Police discipline bill is sent back to committee as some Baltimore senators reject compromise.

A bill that would overhaul Maryland's policing standards and disciplinary procedures hit a serious snag in the Senate Monday night, putting the legislation at risk with less than a week left in the General Assembly session.

The measure, which would make significant changes to the state's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, was sent back to committee after some members of the Baltimore delegation rejected a compromise struck last week over the issue of civilians sitting on police trial boards as voting members.

The legislation, an outgrowth of the rioting that erupted in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries received in police custody, came to the Senate floor Monday night for preliminary approval and consideration of amendments. But when the bill met resistance after 10 p.m., Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller instructed Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, to take it back to the panel to deal with the objections raised by city senators.

Recommitting a bill to committee is often a way of killing it, but Zirkin said he's not giving up on the legislation.

"There's plenty of time left in this session," he said.

Zirkin defended the compromise worked out last week under which Baltimore and other jurisdictions will be permitted to decide for themselves whether to allow civilians to join police as voting members of the trial boards that hear professional discipline cases against law enforcement officers. For police, having civilians sit on trial boards that could determine an officer's professional future is an especially sensitive issue.

After the House approved a version of the bill that did not permit civilian voting members, Baltimore senators sought an amendment that would allow two trained civilians with full voting powers to sit alongside three officers on trial boards in the city.

But the committee decided to allow all jurisdictions to make their own decisions on whether to have civilian members and whether they should have a vote. In Baltimore, the Senate bill would permit the mayor and City Council to adopt local legislation creating the civilian-police trial boards after working out collective bargaining issues with the Fraternal Order of Police.

"We decided the best way forward was to let each local jurisdiction make their own determination," Zirkin said under questioning by Baltimore Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Democrat. Zirkin said some counties had no interest in civilians on trial boards.

Miller backed the committee's solution.

"This is a compromise bill. When the committee came together on this bill it was like the Age of Aquarius,'' he said.

The decision to challenge the compromise split the city's all-Democratic delegation. Sen. Bill Ferguson insisted on offering an amendment writing the hybrid trial boards for Baltimore into state law.

"It makes sure that it happens sooner," Ferguson said.

But Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a Judicial Proceedings member, said the compromise gives Baltimore everything it was seeking. He said the decision to send it back to committee was a setback.

"It causes some concern," McFadden said. To pass the bill, the committee would have to bring it back to the floor, win passage by the full Senate and negotiate a potentially difficult compromise with the House before the close of business Monday.

Miller said the delay "jeopardizes the entire bill." He suggested that members of the city delegation should rethink their position and gave no prediction on when -- or if -- the bill could return to the floor.

The Senate president said he has no plans to press senators to back the compromise.

"If they can't see the folly of their ways, let them understand the consequences of their actions," Miller said.

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