Md. misses another chance to hold police accountable
By Marion Gray Hopkins
Mar 29, 2017 at 12:18 PM
The Rev. C.D. Witherspoon talks about Thursday's protest in Baltimore against police brutality. (Justin George/Baltimore Sun)
Another year, another missed opportunity to serve justice and build trust. The General Assembly forfeited two key opportunities to improve transparency and accountability in law enforcement. Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee voted unfavorably on House and Senate bills that would have allowed complainants of police misconduct to find out how police departments are handling their complaints — how thoroughly an investigation is conducted, whether witnesses were called, whether body camera footage was viewed and whether officers were questioned.
Another bill would have returned control over the Baltimore City Police Department to the people of Baltimore City. Due to a law held over from the Civil War era, the BPD is an agency and instrumentality of the state of Maryland, not Baltimore City. That means that Baltimore's police force is not accountable to the residents of Baltimore — who pay their salaries and whose livelihoods are governed by their decisions — but rather receive their marching orders from statewide officials who may never have stepped foot in Baltimore's communities. Unfortunately, this bill was withdrawn before it even had a hearing. This may be an esoteric issue for Maryland's legislature, but for me, it's personal.
On Nov. 27, 1999, my son, Gary Hopkins Jr., was a victim of police terrorism in Prince George's County. My son was unarmed when police showed up as young people left a local dance. Yet he was killed by an officer that night. The fight for justice, police accountability and transparency is truly a life and death issue to me and many others who have been impacted by the abuse. It's been a tough fight and a long emotional journey with no end in sight. Police misconduct has long haunted communities of color. I worry that Maryland's legislators will not stand up for citizens on this issue and their inaction will doom us for generations to come. I vow not to let that happen.
Last year, the Department of Justice unveiled a widespread culture of abuse and civil rights violations in the Baltimore City Police Department. Among other concerns, the DOJ found that supervisors often misclassify complaints and "administratively close" cases without even conducting an investigation. In one incident, a woman complained that she was fondled and called disgusting, sexist names by officers in Lexington Market. She filed a formal complaint, but no efforts were made to contact her or investigate the matter until several months later. By that time, the video surveillance footage that likely captured the public incident was written over, witnesses could not be located, and, tragically, the woman herself had passed away. The complaint was found "not sustained." All the public would ever learn about this incident is that it was unsustained — no one would ever know that the complaint was deemed so because an inadequate investigation was conducted.
More recently, seven Baltimore officers from a highly-praised gun-tracing unit were indicted by federal prosecutors on charges of racketeering. Unsurprisingly, several of the officers involved have a history of misconduct that had already cost $500,000 in taxpayer dollars to settle lawsuits.
The utter lack of transparency and accountability in policing is not only damaging to individual complainants of misconduct — it damages the relationship that the entire department of officers has with the community it serves and ultimately erodes trust in the police. This interferes with law enforcement's own ability to do their jobs and actually puts officers' lives at greater risk. In the case of the officers from the gun-tracing unit, the repercussions are even farther-reaching: Their actions cast doubt on dozens of gun convictions and on the court system itself.
It is insulting to our communities that the General Assembly failed to take action on these bills. The incidents I cite are clear abuses of power, and this is just the tip of the iceberg across the state.
Marylanders like me, including those who have suffered abuse and loss at the hands of law enforcement, deserve to know that our complaints are being handled equitably and fairly. We deserve to know that appropriate actions are being taken based on the seriousness of the complaint. Maryland can and should do better.