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Holding officers accountable

Maryland is moving toward greater accountability and transparency but more needs to be done.

The 22 proposed reforms unveiled this week by a state task force charged with boosting police accountability and transparency in Maryland constitute an important first step toward granting more rights to victims of police brutality and other misconduct. Among the panel's recommendations are proposals to cut in half the time officers accused of wrongdoing can wait before speaking to department investigators, to lengthen the period during which citizens are allowed to file complaints of brutality and to open internal police trial board proceedings to greater public scrutiny. Panel members clearly put a lot of thought and effort into the task, and they would represent the most significant reform of police disciplinary procedures in decades.

That said, however, there are a number of important issues regarding the so-called Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights that the task force failed to address and that we hope lawmakers will act on this year. One involves a section of the law that restricts who can file a complaint of brutality — presently only victims, members of their immediate family or parents of minor children. No other kind of complaint is subject to such a limitation, which has the practical effect of making it more difficult to file complaints for the most serious forms of police misconduct. We urge lawmakers to strip that provision from law.

Another key area regards who can investigate complaints against officers accused of misconduct. Presently, only sworn officers can do so, a restriction that virtually assures that civilian review boards made up of ordinary people will play no meaningful role in the outcome of misconduct cases. If local jurisdictions are to establish robust civilian review boards that make internal police disciplinary proceedings more transparent, that restriction needs to be lifted as well.

Local jurisdictions can establish civilian review boards along whatever lines they wish, but if their members can't participate in the investigation of brutality complaints, they will never enjoy the authority they need or deserve. Communities must have a greater say in how they are policed, and they need to be assured their complaints are being investigated and taken seriously.

Finally, two recommendations issued by the state panel that have not been widely reported raise cause for concern. The first would require people who file complaints to identify themselves so they can be notified of the outcome of an investigation. This sounds reasonable on its face, but our concern is with the identification requirement. There is a place for anonymous complaints for people who are undocumented immigrants or reluctant to come forward publicly for other reasons, such as fear of retaliation. The requirement that people reveal their identities creates a barrier to complaints that might well be worth following up under any other circumstances.

We have even more serious reservations about a recommendation regarding how internal police trial boards that examine cases of misconduct are constituted, which if enacted could undo much of the good in the reform package. That proposal calls for trial boards to be composed of someone recommended by the police chief, another recommended by the police union and by a third person the two agree on.

That may sound fair, but on reflection it's evident that such a board would be biased toward those accused of misconduct because the union might block anyone who had ever voted to punish an officer. Such an arrangement undermines the whole idea that management, not the union, should determine whether an officer is guilty of misconduct and how he or she should be disciplined.

Make no mistake, we are heartened to see so much momentum behind reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, given how little traction such efforts gained last year. In the post-Freddie Gray era, legislators are clearly taking the issue seriously, and they proposed a thoughtful package of reforms. But given how difficult it has been to amend this law in the past, this year may the last, best chance for reform. We urge lawmakers to take full advantage of the moment to begin to restore the relationship of trust between police and the communities they serve that is the basis of all effective law enforcement.

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