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Baltimore mayor pushes to toughen state law on police misconduct

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts holds a question and answer session with reporters at police headquarters.
Baltimore City Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts holds a question and answer session with reporters at police headquarters.(Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

As Baltimore's mayor presses for state legislation that would give police leaders broader powers over lawbreaking officers, the city's police commissioner says he doesn't want to get involved in the General Assembly battle.

"Part of my responsibility is to enforce the laws, policies and rules. I don't get to make them," Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said Wednesday at a news conference at police headquarters. "I try to focus on how we implement them."

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Batts declined to say whether he would testify before a legislative committee exploring changes to Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.

"If I'm subpoenaed to something, I don't think I have a reason to say yay or nay; they're directing me to come down to talk on those issues," he said, adding: "Well, let's see if I get called."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake delivered three proposed bills Wednesday to Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of Baltimore's House delegation in Annapolis, who will sponsor the measures. One of her suggestions is a new felony charge for officers accused of assaults that are now considered misdemeanors.

The proposals follow a Baltimore Sun investigation that highlighted dozens of cases of alleged police brutality in recent years — as well as demonstrations in Baltimore and across the nation to protest the deaths of unarmed men killed by police.

Proposals to weaken Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which provides procedural protections for officers accused of misconduct, have sparked opposition among the more than 20,000 officers represented by the Fraternal Order of Police across the state.

Baltimore police union president Gene Ryan called the proposals "unconscionable" and urged officers to unite in opposition.

"The current Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights does not exist to allow 'bad' cops to escape punishment," he said. "In fact, the exact opposite is true."

Organizations representing police leaders across the state also have urged caution in changing the law.

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A joint statement from the leaders of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriff's Association said any review should be done as a comprehensive study of the entire law, not as piecemeal legislation that could erode officers' rights.

"The law must both effectively respond to police misconduct and protect those dedicated law enforcement officers who are unfairly targeted," the statement said. "Citizens and other public employees are entitled to due process before the government takes negative action against them, and our law enforcement officers deserve nothing less."

Batts, who was joined by other top police leaders at the news conference, answered questions for about 40 minutes. Outside of news conferences tied to specific events, it was the first time in about two years he has sat down with reporters for a broad question-and-answer session.

Questions touched on homicides, officer deployments and agency policies. As the U.S. Department of Justice conducts a collaborative review aimed at reforming the city's Police Department, Batts stressed that he committed to transparency when he took over in 2012.

"We've been doing that, and we'll continue to achieve that," he said.

In recent months, Batts has criticized the state law's restrictions on his disciplinary power. At a news conference last fall, he said the law prevented him from taking swift action when an officer was caught on a city surveillance camera beating a man at a bus stop. Batts called for changes to the law, which blocks officers from being suspended without pay unless charged with a felony.

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Rawlings-Blake's proposals would give more power to Batts, as well as to sheriffs and police chiefs across the state.

She called for allowing the police commissioner to more quickly discipline an officer who avoids conviction in court through a probation before judgment ruling in a felony or serious misdemeanor case. The mayor's measure would remove the officer's right to an internal hearing before the commissioner sets a final punishment.

Another bill would allow the Civilian Review Board to hear a wider variety of complaints against all officers inside city limits, including those on state forces such as the Maryland Transit Administration Police.

Anderson said he would like Batts to testify before state lawmakers, but it would anger the city's 2,800 officers.

"Having the mayor be the point person is just as good as the police commissioner," Anderson said. Batts "is stuck between a rock and a hard place."

Kevin Harris, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, said she "will do whatever is necessary" to move the legislation forward and will evaluate any requests that legislators make for Batts to testify.

Anderson said the mayor met Wednesday with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, to discuss the bills. Vallario "didn't jump on board" with the legislation, but the meeting was a starting point, Anderson said.

Police unions hold political power and typically donate thousands of dollars to elected officials during each election cycle. The Baltimore police union donated $1,000 to Rawlings-Blake in December.

But police, along with fire and other labor unions, blasted the mayor's proposals across social media this week.

"Close the political contribution funds to all who sign on then because they certainly are no friend," tweeted FOP Lodge 34, which represents Maryland Transportation Authority officers.

Harris said the proposed changes do not take away an officer's due process. The mayor is willing to work with unions, but officers should be treated like other residents when it comes to misconduct, he said.

"We have to be just as diligent about protecting the rights of everyday citizens as we do about making sure officers have due process," Harris said.

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