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Baltimore County failed at real police reform | COMMENTARY

Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones, far right, and County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced a revised police reform plan at a news conference Sept. 8. The two are shown at a January news conference with Councilman Izzy Patoka, left, and county Police Chief Melissa Hyatt. A bill supported by all three passed last week.
Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones, far right, and County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced a revised police reform plan at a news conference Sept. 8. The two are shown at a January news conference with Councilman Izzy Patoka, left, and county Police Chief Melissa Hyatt. A bill supported by all three passed last week. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore County Council last week passed a weak and symbolic police reform bill, disappointing hundreds of community members. The legislation won wide consensus from County Executive John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. and a majority of council members, but it does not substantively address the key demands that would bring true progress toward police accountability and transparency.

In passing this bill, council members gave enormous deference to the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) labor union, while the concerns and demands of residents and police reform advocates were excluded from the supposed “compromise” process.

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At the council’s work session, the legislation was described as a thoughtful, inclusive compromise. However, State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger made clear who was and was not at the table to craft the bill: “Chief Hyatt, the FOP, the county executive’s office, the council and myself all started working diligently to get to a bill where we wanted to get.” This so-called compromise left out the most important stakeholders — the community. So it is hardly surprising that the bill would favor the status quo interests of a law enforcement agency that vigorously and consistently resists public oversight.

Why is passage of a true police accountability bill so important? Because there are serious policing problems in our county. Just four months ago, the governors' office reported that Baltimore County led the state in officer-involved civilian deaths last year, and has been a top-three offender since the state began tracking that data in 2013. Even as we write this final draft, we have learned that a man, who may have been experiencing a mental health crisis, was shot by Baltimore County police.

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Since June, the message from our communities has been focused and very clear: The BCPD must change. The police cannot police themselves. But a reform bill that does not include strong transparency and public accountability measures will bring only the illusion of reform. The residents of Baltimore County deserve bold action from its leaders — not symbols without substance.

That is why dozens and dozens of residents and advocates collectively spent hours before the county council, and met with individual council members, the county executive and their staff to urge their support for three amendments that would bring a measure of transparency and accountability to the bill.

While our amendment requiring the police chief to present an annual report on use of force to the county council passed, two pivotal amendments did not. The two withdrawn amendments would have enabled the police chief to appoint trained civilians to police disciplinary hearing boards as voting members and would also have extended whistleblower protections for officers who report any kind of misconduct. By any measure, these amendments were reasonable and modest, and together, the amendments would have made a real difference.

The bill that passed mandates additional training, a few new policies, even a declaration about the sanctity of life. Yet, any mandate is only as effective as its enforcement mechanisms. Moreover, the public’s confidence in its local police department will only run as deep as the public accountability and transparency with which it operates. Unfortunately, the legislation that passed will not provide either to county residents to the degree necessary to establish this.

Seeing what happened with this legislation makes it clear that real police reform is impossible in Maryland without repealing the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBR). And ultimately Baltimore County’s elected leaders are more committed to protecting the status quo of opaque and unaccountable policing than clearing the way to protect and preserve their constituents' well-being and lives. We now turn our attention to the Maryland General Assembly and to Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County delegate with enormous power to bring about the real and meaningful reforms that are so desperately needed — full repeal of LEOBR.

The people of Baltimore County deserved action from our leaders that responded to common-sense public demands. Instead, people in power stuck together at the expense of the community. The reality is that the legislation that passed simply will not significantly change Baltimore County’s policing and its impacts on our residents and neighborhoods. If council members wanted to make real reforms, they should have included the concerns of communities most affected by this bill.

Noureen Badwi (noureenbadwi@gmail.com) is chair of Baltimore County Youth Speaks; Claire Landers (clairelanders1@gmail.com) is a board member of Jews United for Justice, and Dana Vickers Shelley (dana@aclu-md.org) is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

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