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Policing the police

Perhaps it's no surprise that representatives of the state Fraternal Order of Police have come out against any changes to a Maryland law intended to protect the rights of officers accused of misconduct. Critics, including the Maryland ACLU and the NAACP, have long charged the law allows "bad apples" on police forces to avoid disciplinary action. But to hear the FOP tell it, the 40-year-old Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights has been effective in holding officers guilty of misconduct to account while shielding the good cops who are just doing their jobs from frivolous or malicious citizen complaints.

Lawmakers who met in Annapolis Monday to consider revisions to the law ought to be skeptical of such assertions. In recent years there have too many cases of officers who repeatedly abused their authority yet remained on the force despite their misdeeds. Baltimore City alone has paid out more than $6 million since 2011 to settle claims against officers accused of misconduct. And misconduct cases aren't limited to Baltimore; they've cropped up in the suburban and rural parts of the state as well in recent years. Something clearly isn't working.

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We'll grant some points made by the law's backers. For example, shortening the 10-day period during which officers suspected of misconduct are allowed to retain a lawyer before they must submit to a departmental disciplinary interrogation might not make much difference. Police chiefs and sheriffs generally begin their own internal probes well before actually interviewing the officers involved. And the 10-day window doesn't apply to criminal investigations. Critics of the law contend that the 10 days gives officers time to collude on a story, but recent examples here and elsewhere suggest it doesn't take bad cops nearly that long to accomplish that.

Of course, it also doesn't take officers nearly 10 days to find an attorney; frequently, the police union provides one for them. Shortening the time window would not substantially hurt officers' ability to be treated fairly but would decrease the public's sense that police are subjected to a different set of rules than everyone else.

We also readily acknowledge that much of the blame for lax discipline lies in police commanders and their civilian bosses. To the extent that union contract provisions provide additional protections beyond the bill of rights, that's a fault of political leadership.

But where we take exception with the law's defenders is in the notion that civilians shouldn't participate in reviews of police misconduct. That's nonsense. The state FOP's general counsel on Monday argued that only officers should be able to determine whether police have committed misconduct. "Who would be the judges of police officers? Plumbers?" he said.

Well, yes. Why shouldn't plumbers — or school teachers, or accountants or biochemists for that matter — be able to make such judgments? Police are public servants, and the public should have a say in whether they feel well or ill served by the police. To suggest you have to be a cop to judge one is like arguing that the only people capable of judging criminals would be other criminals. If that sounds crazy, it's because it is.

Police should understand this as well as anyone. Not only do they frequently appear in court themselves to testify before civilian juries and judges, they expect those same civilians to base their decisions on the facts presented in court. Police risk their lives daily to protect lives and property in the communities they serve. But they are also part of those communities and subject to the same laws. And when they mess up they should be judged by the same standards that apply to everyone else, regardless of the uniform they're wearing.

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