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Op-ed

Maryland legislature has unfinished business on police accountability | GUEST COMMENTARY

Despite the outcry sparked by the murder of George Floyd, police brutality continues to plague our nation. Right here in Maryland, Montgomery County police killed 21-year-old Ryan Leroux while he was parked in a McDonald’s drive through and likely experiencing a mental health crisis. And last summer, the nation was outraged by footage of Ocean City police brutalizing Black and brown teens on the boardwalk.

While actions taken last legislative session were the furthest the General Assembly has ever gone on police reform, significant work remains. As a member of the 2020 Workgroup on Police Accountability, I offered several amendments during our floor debate last year to the 2021 Police Accountability Act that I believe are critical to building transparency and accountability. The amendments unfortunately failed, leaving the work of police accountability unfinished in Maryland.

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This year, I introduced a series of bills that present a path forward. Here are the critical steps Maryland still must take:

End qualified immunity

Qualified immunity is the legal doctrine that protects police from individual liability in civil matters, denying their victims due process. Simply put, qualified immunity is antithetical to accountability.

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House Bill 463 seeks to ensure that officers who display a wanton disregard for human life can be held personally accountable and answerable to the communities that pay their salaries. There have been too many instances both here in Maryland and nationwide where the public is left “holding the bag” for the acts of rogue officers. We should join our counterparts in Colorado, New Mexico in finally ending this legal doctrine.

Address white nationalism

Racialized policing has always been a feature of law enforcement in America, tracing its roots to slave patrols. Yet, there has been a disappointing failure to confront white nationalism in law enforcement. Congressman Jamie Raskin released an unredacted FBI assessment on white nationalism in law enforcement, the findings of which should alarm anyone who cares about the safety of our communities. The findings showed that the infiltration of white nationalist groups in law enforcement is more pervasive than we thought. If we hope to end racialized policing, we must address one of the root problems.

House Bill 524 confronts and resolves the problem by prohibiting police affiliation with white supremacist organizations. Current law requires that the Maryland Police Standards and Training Commission certify potential and current officers ensuring that they pass criminal history checks, undergo mental health screenings and satisfy physical agility requirements. H.B. 524 simply represents a logical and necessary extension of MPSTC’s existing screening requirement.

End no-knock warrants

The “no-knock warrant” is typically used for low level drug searches, and not necessarily to save lives. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that no-knock warrants create a substantial risk of violent confrontation between homeowners and law enforcement officers while doing little to curb crime. The cases of Breonna Taylor, and more recently Amir Locke, both of whom were shot by law enforcement officers while asleep, suggest that the human cost of these warrants, particularly for Black and brown communities, is too high for us to ignore.

While the General Assembly placed restrictions on when and how no-knock warrants can be served, we stopped short of a complete ban. When passed, House Bill 532 will ban the use of no-knock warrants in Maryland. The Florida and Oregon legislatures have already banned the use of no-knock warrants, and it’s time that we do too.

Hold prosecutors accountable

Prosecutors must be seen as honest brokers, operating outside of the influence of special interests and beholden to the community only. The current relationship between elected prosecutors and police associations at best presents a potential conflict of interest, and, at worst, is impermissibly incestuous. According to Mapping Police Violence, prosecutors decline to prosecute 97% of police brutality cases nationwide. Indeed, in Maryland, the Caroline County State’s Attorney declined to prosecute all of the officers involved in the death of Anton Black, an African-American teenager killed while in police custody on the Eastern Shore.

The State’s Attorney’s role is to seek justice and accountability on behalf of the public. However, the perception is that such top prosecutors are more concerned about campaign contributions than they are with the communities they are sworn to represent. House Bill 1373 is designed to restore the trust in prosecutors that has been eroded in recent years requiring that the attorney general and county and city state’s attorneys who have received campaign contributions from organizations representing and acting on behalf of police be precluded from investigating allegations of criminality on the part of those same officers.

State lawmakers are in the driver’s seat when it comes to police accountability. We define what is permissible policing, and the legislation we pass can have a profound ripple effect on federal policy. As police accountability bills languish in the Congress, state legislatures across the country must act now to transform public safety. We owe it to our marginalized constituents to be bold in our policymaking, to transform, not tweak, current policies to ensure greater transparency and accountability. The General Assembly has unfinished work, and the time to act is now.

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Democrat Gabriel Acevero (gabriel.acevero@house.state.md.us) represents Montgomery County’s 39th District in the Maryland House of Delegates. He is the 2nd vice chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and was a member of the 2020 House Workgroup on Police Accountability in Maryland.


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