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Not a Baltimore problem

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has her work cut out for her as she tries to persuade this year's General Assembly to give Police Commissioner Anthony Batts more power to discipline officers accused of misconduct. State law currently restricts the kinds of actions police chiefs can take in such cases, and Mr. Batts himself has said that it takes only a few "bad apples" on the force to undermine public confidence in the entire department. The mayor's proposed changes would give him and his counterparts throughout the state greater authority to hold misbehaving officers accountable and protect the department's integrity. They all deserve a thorough and fair hearing from lawmakers in Annapolis.

One bill Ms. Rawlings-Blake supports would modify Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights by creating a new felony charge of "misconduct in office" for police officers. Currently the law allows police chiefs to suspend without pay officers charged with felony offenses but not those accused of misdemeanors. In effect, the law shields officers accused of some types of assaults and other offenses against citizens from any disciplinary consequences at all. Making "misconduct in office" a felony in its own right would allow police chiefs to use the charge to remove problem officers from their ranks more swiftly.

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Early reaction from police groups has been to oppose the idea of creating a special felony only for police officers, with one official suggesting it should apply to elected officials, too. (Perhaps not a bad idea.) But that's not the only way to solve the problem. Instead, lawmakers could simply modify the existing law on suspensions to include certain serious misdemeanors — say, any offense punishable by more than one year in jail.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake also wants a change in the current law that would allow police chiefs to act more quickly against officers sentenced to probation before judgment in felony or serious misdemeanor cases, and to give the city's Civilian Review Board the authority to investigate complaints against any law-enforcement officer operating inside the city limits, including state police and other state agency forces such as the Maryland Transit Authority police. Currently those officers are exempt from review by the board, but when they engage in misconduct they should be held just as accountable for their actions as are the city's own police.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake can expect some spirited opposition from the police unions and even from some other police chiefs across the state to any change in the current Officers Bill of Rights. Some chiefs say they already have all the authority they need to fire misbehaving officers, while the unions will surely claim there's no need to change a law that protects hundreds of good officers just because of a few problem cops in Baltimore.

But Baltimore isn't the only jurisdiction where police misconduct is a problem, and whatever chiefs elsewhere say about the need for changes to the Officers Bill of Rights doesn't necessarily mean they wouldn't welcome being given greater authority to discipline their ranks. Even Mr. Batts has said he won't publicly advocate for the changes he thinks are needed. That's regrettable, and we hope he adds his voice to this debate, but it is understandable given that he probably prefers not to put himself in the position of supporting a measure his officers' union is bound to oppose. Every chief in Maryland, as well as every county executive, has the same concern about offending the rank-and-file, so it's to her credit that Ms. Rawlings-Blake is willing to lead the charge on her own.

But even if the problem were just limited to Baltimore City — which it most surely is not — the reputation of the vast majority of good officers across the state would still be tarnished by the perception that police can't be relied on to punish the wrongdoers in their own ranks. It's that kind of corrosive image that undermines public trust in even the best officers who put their lives on the line every day serving others. Maryland needs to change the law as much to protect them as to weed out the tiny minority of bad actors who abuse their authority.

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