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Holding police accountable

Lawmakers need to take a hard look at the problem of officer misconduct.

At the end of a year in which allegations of police brutality have dominated headlines across the country, Maryland can no longer ignore the need for reform. Last week, Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake endorsed a series of policy changes to hold misbehaving officers more accountable, and a legislative work group in Annapolis is considering several measures aimed at restoring trust between police and the communities they serve. This is a complex problem that won't be solved quickly or easily. But we are heartened by the fact that officials in Maryland finally appear ready to give the issue the serious consideration it deserves.

In the wake of The Sun's "Undue Force" investigation into the millions Baltimore has paid in settlements and judgments of police brutality cases, Ms. Rawlings-Blake backed a series of bills in the General Assembly that would have made it easier for police chiefs and sheriffs to discipline misbehaving officers. But months before Freddie Gray put Baltimore police in the national spotlight, that legislation went nowhere after the state's local chiefs — including former city police commissioner Anthony Batts — declined to support it. Since then, however, a nationwide string of high-profile cases involving officer misconduct and excessive use of force has prompted a change of heart among Maryland's police leaders, who are now actively taking the lead in proposing reforms.

Among the reforms under consideration by lawmakers are changes to Maryland's so-called Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which limits police chiefs' ability to discipline officers accused of misconduct. For example, the law gives officers up to 10 days to get an attorney before they can be questioned by superiors, and it also restricts investigations of complaints of brutality that are more than 90 days old. Another section of the law allows police chiefs to fire or suspend officers without pay only if they are charged with a felony and only after a police trial board made up of the accused's fellow officers determines such punishment is appropriate.

Those restrictions have made it more difficult to weed out misbehaving officers in Maryland than in almost any other state. That's why the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriffs Association have recommended cutting in half the number of days an officer has to get an attorney and submit to questioning and also extending the statute of limitations for investigating complaints of misconduct to a year instead of 90 days. The chiefs also want changes in the law that would allow departments to fire or suspend without pay officers charged with serious misdemeanors, including some kinds of assaults, as well as felonies.

Last month, the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriffs Association wrote to state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch to present a package of nine reforms they believe are needed to restore public confidence in the police and prevent the vast majority of officers who perform their tasks admirably from being tarnished by the actions of a few bad apples in their midst. "Law enforcement's ability and willingness to hold its officers accountable is a critical part of enhancing trust between agencies and communities," the chiefs wrote, adding that "there is no place in our organizations for members who do not uphold the standards of the law or meet the highest internal expectations of integrity and proper conduct for officers."

We hope lawmakers will take that advice to heart when the legislature convenes next month to consider changes to the LEOBOR as well as a range of other measures designed to make police departments more transparent and accountable. Those measures will include more robust disclosure and reporting requirements; reforms to police training, recruiting and hiring practices; and stronger protections for whistle-blowers who report abuses. Lawmakers will also look at issues related to the use of body cameras to record officers' interactions with the public and periodic psychological evaluations for officers that could alert commanders to potential problems regarding their use of force.

In endorsing the reforms proposed by the chiefs, Ms. Rawlings-Blake called them "common sense" measures that respond to long-held concerns about police accountability that will help provide the "swift and certain" punishment of misbehaving officers that city Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has promised. If the need for reform wasn't obvious 10 months ago, it certainly is now, and lawmakers must rise to the challenge.

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