This is how the Maryland General Assembly should reform policing in the state | COMMENTARY

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Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, right, gives an update on the department's reform efforts, and changes to policies and training put in place since a Consent Decree was implemented.

Police reform is at the top of the agenda for Maryland lawmakers this legislative session, amid a nationwide social justice movement that has further exposed the wrongs of police brutality. Here is where The Sun’s editorial board stands on some key issues lawmakers are considering.

Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR). Since 1974, state law under LEOBR has protected dirty cops by creating cumbersome hurdles to investigations and extending special rights to police officers that make it hard to discipline for misconduct. Years of attempts to repeal the law have failed, but lawmakers seem closer than ever to getting rid of it once and for all this year. Bills in both chambers would do just that.


But lawmakers need to come up with a consensus on what to replace it with. Simply eliminating the bill with no new standards for dealing with police conduct would leave it up to local jurisdictions to decide, setting up a mixed bag of regulations, likely influenced by police unions, that could lead to a worse system than is currently in place.

Right now, contrasting views exist on how discipline should be handled in the future. Democratic House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones proposes keeping a trial board system where cases are reviewed, but adding civilians to it, rather than having it stacked with all police officers, as is the case now. A bill by Democratic Sen. Jill Carter would get rid of trial boards and put the firing power in the hands of police chiefs.


Supporters of keeping discipline in the department say it holds one person accountable. That may be true somewhere like Baltimore, which is under a federal consent decree monitored by a judge and there’s little option outside of doing the right thing. But in small towns, where there is less scrutiny, a police chief or sheriff wields a lot of power and might be tempted to protect a fellow officer or the reputation of a department over the rights of mistreated citizens. Police have proven too many times that they can’t police themselves.

Plus, chiefs wouldn’t lose all power even under a trial board-based disciplinary system. A chief could still suspend without pay any officer facing criminal charges and fire any officer convicted of a crime without a disciplinary process. Under current law, that can only occur when an officer is convicted of a felony.

Transparency and accountability. Want to know if a police officer was accused of, or found to have participated in, misconduct? You’d be hard pressed to find out in Maryland, where transparency laws keep such information largely sealed. Legislation aims to change that, including a provision to create a database to track police officers decertified because of excessive use of force and other infractions, something we believe would help weed out bad cops. Bills in both chambers would also make it so police misconduct records are no longer treated as personnel files that are untouchable. Rather than “mandatory” denial of record review, such files should be subject to “discretionary” denial, like all other public information requests. Release of records should be considered on both sustained (charged) and certain unsustained (not charged) cases. We understand that some circumstances call for keeping records closed, or redacting information — for instance to protect someone involved in a case. But those decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, and the default should be to satisfy the public’s right to know the history of an officer’s behavior.

No-knock-warrants. Police use these warrants to enter homes unannounced, without ringing a doorbell or knocking, to prevent destruction of evidence, such as drugs. Criticism over these warrants reached new heights after high profile cases around the country, namely the death of Breonna Taylor. She was shot by police in Louisville, Kentucky, who used a no-knock warrant to enter her apartment because they suspected her ex-boyfriend had stashed drugs there. Video released in December showed Chicago police officers rushing into the wrong home while attempting to serve such a warrant last year, and handcuffing a naked woman, a social worker, who lived there.

Some Maryland lawmakers want an outright ban of these warrants. That goes too far; the warrants are a useful crime fighting tool in some cases, such as those involving child safety or terrorism. We favor instead creating restrictions limiting their use. Speaker Jones’ legislation would require “clear and convincing evidence that, without the authorization, the life or safety of the executing officer or another person may be endangered.” That’s fair. Current law only calls for reasonable suspicion the property subject to seizure may be destroyed, or the life or safety of the executing officer or another person may be endangered. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office said the state could also consider requiring high-level approvals within the police department and review by states attorneys. Restricting search warrants between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., as the speaker’s bill would do, is not necessary if no-knock warrants are not so easily attainable.

Local control of the Baltimore Police Department. When Baltimore officials want to make changes within the city’s police department they are beholden for the most part to lawmakers in Annapolis during their 90-day General Assembly session. The Baltimore Police Department is the only jurisdiction in Maryland under state control, and city officials have often felt hamstrung by the 19th-century set up. The department is governed not by the city’s charter and code but by the Public Local Laws of Baltimore City, which are enacted by the General Assembly. The problems this creates became apparent when the city was required to adopt changes under its federal consent decree but couldn’t do so on its own. While the city still controls some functions of the department, namely funding its budget and hiring the commissioner, and is also responsible for any legal liability from police misconduct, it has little control over policy direction.

Legislation in both the House and Senate would end this unnecessary control and give the city the much needed authority to make policy changes to turn around a department beset in recent years by corruption, scandal and community mistrust. Similar legislation was held up in 2019 because some Baltimore state senators worried it would put the city on the hook for more liability cases regarding police conduct. Those concerns have since been addressed and one of those lawmakers, Sen. Cory McCray, a Democrat, sponsored local control legislation this year. We hope this means the time is right for Baltimore to finally gain control of its police department.

Use of force. We support various efforts by lawmakers to create a statewide standard for when police officers may use force on a suspect. George Floyd, who died as an officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis last year, showed us how the use of force can go horribly wrong. Officers should resort to such tactics only when it is necessary and reasonable, and all other alternatives have been tried. For example, was pepper spray used before a gun was pulled out? A Taser? Was anyone in danger of being killed or seriously injured? Could a conversation have diffused the situation? Officers must be trained on de-escalation tactics and required to intervene when another officer is using excessive force — and report it to supervisors, as well. The so-called blue code of silence needs to end. Police should be disciplined, such as through decertification, and in other cases held criminally responsible when using force before other tactics. Police culture needs to change so that shooting is not the first line of defense.


Body cameras. The legislature should require the use of body cameras by all police departments. Video has exposed police brutality that likely had gone on in secrecy for years and brought justice to victims, often people of color. Such cameras add a layer of accountability to police misconduct efforts, and they should be universal.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.