There are at least two things that every Maryland resident should know about how the General Assembly operates. First is that legislative committees routinely hold hearings throughout the year and not just during the 90-day annual session that begins in January. Second is that the purpose of such gatherings is to become better informed on what are often complex issues. And so hearing from experts as well as average folks, studying reports and even debating topics with fellow senators and delegates outside the three-month pressure cooker of the legislative session is simply never a bad thing. Oh, some lawmakers don’t like making the pilgrimage to Annapolis, but then the COVID-19 pandemic has this year made that moot. Online hearings might be the most convenient option legislators and staff have ever been presented and, thankfully, the public can easily monitor and testify at them, too.
Given these circumstances, it’s been discouraging to hear Republicans excoriate Democratic leaders in Annapolis for daring to allow the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold three days of hearings this week on police reform. Before the fact-finding even began on Tuesday, Senate Republicans wrote a letter to President Bill Ferguson asking that they be canceled and calling the hearings “simply a planned and concerted effort to excite partisan, political activists before an upcoming election.” Baltimore County Republican Sen. Chris West labeled all 15 bills under the committee’s review “anti-police.” And Carroll County Republican Sen. Justin Ready said the hearings should have been on violence in Baltimore instead. This appears to be a widespread view on his side of the aisle.
So here are some of the topics that the GOP believed unworthy of consideration: eliminating no-knock warrants like the one that led to the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in a police raid in Louisville, Kentucky, last March; making police body camera footage more available to the public; authorizing the state prosecutor to investigate alleged criminal acts by police officers; and requiring police departments to administer drug and alcohol tests to officers involved in a shooting or who cause serious bodily harm to someone else. There are many more, of course, some quite controversial and some less so.
What’s most troubling about the Republican reaction is the suggestion that police reform — weeding out bad cops, cracking down on racist behavior or even setting a statewide standard for the use of deadly force — is pro-criminal when it is exactly the opposite. The relationship between police and the African American community in Baltimore and many other places, has been absolutely staggered by recent events. The death of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year with an officer’s knee on his neck was a turning point for many Americans. How can police be trusted unless there is accountability? In Baltimore, that conversation started even before the death of Freddie Gray in police custody five years ago. It’s a relationship poisoned by the obvious and long-standing reality of unequal treatment that leaves African American men far more likely to be arrested, convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison terms than their white counterparts.
So while we’re willing to believe that rural and suburban lawmakers have less firsthand experience with these issues than those who reside in Baltimore City, how could they possibly show such indifference to this awful circumstance that has been highlighted by protests nationwide? There are at least two possibilities. First is that they follow the Donald Trump doctrine that seeks to ignore the problem and point instead to “Black on Black” crime (as if letting police misconduct slide somehow reduced violent crime) and second is that they genuinely have no clue what’s happening in the nation’s urban centers. We can’t cure the former (this excess of partisanship mixed with lack of empathy), but public hearings could help address the latter if Republicans are willing to pay attention.
As for the Democrats gaining political advantage prior to the November election, that might well be the case. Responding to matters of broad public concern have a way of making voters think you’re competent and looking out for the public’s best interests. Go figure. Republicans seem to think that shielding bad cops is what their constituents want. We suspect this is not the case. And as for violent crime in Baltimore, we remain all ears if lawmakers — Democrats, Republicans or anybody in between — can offer serious proposals to address the root causes of what has been a deadly plague on Maryland’s largest city. A willingness to listen is always the best starting point.
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.