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Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights: an impediment to accountability | COMMENTARY

The 9-5 vote this month by a state House of Delegates work group to recommend repealing Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights may seem incremental, one step in a long, uncertain road ahead. But given strong police union pushback and the failure in past years to even do so much as meaningfully reform the problematic statute, it could be monumental.

State lawmakers have never before endorsed rescinding the law, which critics frequently blame for protecting the jobs of cops who’ve committed misconduct and have no business on the force — not even after Freddie Gray was fatally injured while in Baltimore police custody in 2015. That year, after widespread social justice protests, advocates recommended a host of reforms to LEOBR (the not-so-catchy acronym it’s known by), but what passed the legislature a year later was minor in the end. Since then, the Baltimore Police Department has been placed under a federal consent decree requiring particular reforms. Yet LEOBR still largely governs the internal disciplinary process for officers.

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A little more than a dozen other states have their own version of LEOBR on the books, but Maryland was the first to adopt it in 1974, and ours is among the most restrictive in the country. It’s meant to protect officers from undue departmental discipline, demotion or dismissal by requiring particular procedures for investigating misconduct and other complaints. At the time Maryland was initially considering it, Donald Pomerleau ran the city police department “like an Army,” according to one legislator. And some officers claimed that the commissioner was too quick to take disciplinary action, suspending officers without evidence, forcing others to take lie detector tests, and transferring people willy-nilly. Lawmakers sympathetic to police passed the politically popular bill, and it’s been under scrutiny ever since.

Baltimore’s current police commissioner, Michael Harrison, in a letter sent to the work group this summer asked that the law be changed to allow him to fire officers “in the days immediately following a criminal incident, as the chief of the Minneapolis Police Department” did this spring after the appalling death of George Floyd, rather than having to wait for a conviction to take such action. He gave the example of Baltimore Officer Wesley Cagle, who shot an unarmed man in 2014, but remained on the force for another two years before he was convicted on first-degree assault and handgun charges. Commissioner Harrison also wants more power to suspend officers without pay when they’re charged with misdemeanors, and for civilians to be allowed to “co-investigate allegations of misconduct.”

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Though city police commissioners have long complained that LEOBR makes it too difficult to fire officers for bad acts, Commissioner Harrison did not ask for a repeal. Those calls came largely from advocacy and other groups. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is among at least 85 organizations, from Common Cause Maryland to Planned Parenthood Maryland, that have asked the state General Assembly to strike LEOBR from state law in its entirety, noting that it grants police officers “special rights that no other state or local government employee has” and has “allowed police abuse to go unpunished.”

The law requires that other officers conduct investigations, rather than independent actors (unless the governor calls for it); bans interview techniques police routinely use on average citizens, including having more than one questioner; and gives the accused a full five days to find an attorney before interrogation. This is all for employment purposes, mind you. Police have the same due process rights as everyone else in criminal matters.

Still, police unions and their lobbyists say LEOBR works just fine, as one might expect. And they hold a lot of sway in Annapolis. Lawmakers will have a heated fight ahead if they pursue repeal.

They shouldn’t let that stop them.

The risk of keeping a bad cop on the force, one likely to abuse the position and the public, is simply of such great concern that it outweighs the risk that an individual officer might not get a fully fair shake in an employment investigation. LEOBR rules are so cumbersome, that investigations are often not undertaken at all for less serious complaints, critics say, and those that are begun are frequently left to expire. Police officers already have unions to represent their interests. We don’t need LEOBR as an impediment to accountability. We cannot afford to harbor Wesley Cagles.

After a summer of uprising by people protesting police abuse and brutality throughout the country, the momentum is right, and the time is now. The legislature must repeal LEOBR.

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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