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It’s time to finally fix the problems with policing in Maryland | COMMENTARY

The majority of Marylanders want to see police reform in Maryland.
The majority of Marylanders want to see police reform in Maryland. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

The residents of Maryland have spoken: They are not happy with the way police misconduct is handled in the state. That was one of the main take-aways from a Goucher College poll released last week that found the majority of residents believe that major police reform is needed, even as they say they generally view officers favorably. In other words, they want police to keep their neighborhoods and communities safe, but they also want to see an end to brutality and bad behavior by corrupt cops.

This should send a loud message to state and local lawmakers that this is not the year for status quo. Roused by the Black Lives Matter Movement, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police this summer, and numerous other police brutality cases, people want to see substantive change. No more bipartisan gridlock, caving to the police lobby or bureaucratic delays on reform efforts, such as requiring transparency in police misconduct investigations. People of all races and party affiliations support reform, according to the poll, aligning with a national movement of racial reckoning.

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The poll results indicated Marylanders don’t think police can monitor themselves, with 85% of respondents supporting replacing inquiries by internal affairs departments with independent investigations. Eighty-seven percent want police misconduct cases made public. An overwhelming number of respondents, 82%, also said they favor mandatory racial bias training for police officers, and 79% support statewide de-escalation and use-of-force policies for all police departments.

Lawmakers seem to get the urgency of the issue, with members of the General Assembly convening a work group ahead of next year’s legislative session; members released their own reform recommendations Thursday. The Baltimore County Council passed police reform legislation earlier this month, created in a joint effort by the administration of County Executive John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr., that would ban police chokeholds, better protect officers who report misconduct by fellow cops and prevent the hiring of officers with misconduct issues at other departments, among other initiatives.

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Others are using the power of their office. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby issued a letter to city prosecutors last week directing them not to authorize “no-knock” warrants, where police enter people’s houses without giving a heads up, sometimes in the middle of the night. Ms. Mosby said the police shooting and death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, showed these warrants are unnecessary and risk people’s lives.

We’re not saying reforming policing in Maryland will be easy. Legislators will face the tough task of balancing several different interests. Already Baltimore County’s legislation has received criticism for not going far enough and being too heavily influenced by law enforcement. And there is indication advocates intend to put intense pressure on lawmakers. A group of 85 organizations that includes the ACLU Maryland, CASA, Jews United for Justice, the Public Justice Center and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle said last week that attempts at reform will be meaningless if legislation is not passed to repeal the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR), to reform Maryland’s Public Information Act, and to only allow use of force when absolutely necessary. “If the workgroup does not address these two important policy issues, it will be an example of the Maryland General Assembly’s unwillingness to enact meaningful police accountability," the group said in a statement. "We urge the General Assembly to follow the lead of legislative champions on police reform issues, instead of offering a big leadership bill approach to this session.”

The time is now for bold change and not incremental baby steps on an issue that has ruined lives and torn apart families — the victims disproportionately Black and brown. The culture of policing needs to change if we no longer want to see victims shot while sitting in the front of a police car while handcuffed or taken hostage because a cop didn’t like the renovation work they performed on their home. We need to make it harder for criminal police group’s like Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, which terrorized citizens and broke the law, to even exist. The only way that will happen is with sound policy. Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts at a recent hearing described that department as one of “badasses” with too many broken systems. That is not acceptable.

All we know is that too many instances of misconduct continue to crop up — and not just in Baltimore. What is in place now clearly is not working. Lawmakers need to ride the wave of public sentiment around the need for police reform. Too many people are watching. The public and advocates have laid out a blueprint. It’s time to bring it home.

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.

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