Last year, the Maryland House of Delegates celebrated the election of its first Black woman speaker in Adrienne A. Jones. The state Senate elected its youngest president ever in Sen. Bill Ferguson. The implication was that these changes in leadership, after almost 40 years with the longest-serving House speaker and Senate president in the country, might signify a change in the culture of Maryland’s General Assembly, which is comprised of Democratic super majorities in both houses.
Unfortunately, instead of welcome change, we are getting more of the same.
This has been particularly evident in the work of the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, which has a Democratic majority and, in another historic first, is chaired by Sen. William Smith, a 36-year-old Black man from Montgomery County, ostensibly the most progressive county in the state. As part of their commitment to reform policing in Maryland, leaders of both houses of the General Assembly have promised to support full repeal of the deeply problematic Law Enforcement Bill of Rights. But in considering Sen. Jill P. Carter’s bill to repeal LEOBR, committee leadership allowed Republicans and Fraternal Order of Police surrogates to simply re-rewrite the bill, rendering repeal meaningless (”After contentious debate, Senate panel amends then advances measure to replace Maryland’s police ‘Bill of Rights,’” Feb. 20).
Consistently, Senator Smith and his vice chair, Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, voted with Republicans on all weakening amendments, leaving only the bill sponsor Senator Carter and Sens. Charles Sydnor, Shelly Hettleman, and Susan Lee to vote against them. On another bill, the chair and vice chair voted with Republicans to weaken the definition of excessive force in creating a statewide use of force law.
Unfortunately, the theme of “new leaders, same culture” is not limited to this committee. This year, Baltimore city’s delegation elected new leaders, Sen. Cory McCray and Del. Stephanie Smith. Despite a loud outcry from Baltimore residents to repeal a bill approving the Johns Hopkins University private police force, the city delegation leadership has not even scheduled a hearing for Senator Carter’s bill to do just that. The bill approving Hopkins’ private police passed as a city delegation bill, and other legislators have claimed they were honoring requests of city lawmakers in passing it. For an appeal to be considered, the delegation must hold a hearing.
We’ve heard leaders proclaim this as the year of “racial reckoning.” Yet, there has been no reckoning with the fact that Johns Hopkins himself was a slave owner, although history has mischaracterized him as an abolitionist. Johns Hopkins University itself has stated its intention to stall the creation of a police force for at least two years, clearly signaling the legislature to take action. Yet, the city’s representatives refuse to act.
Like many Marylanders, we were hopeful that our new legislative leaders would take bold, decisive action to begin to fix what is broken in our criminal justice system. But while individual leaders have changed, it’s clear that the same pro-corporate, pro-police, anti-Black culture persists in Maryland’s Democratic super-majority General Assembly.
Monica Cooper, Baltimore
The writer is executive director of the Maryland Justice Project and a member of the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee.
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