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Mayor wants new felony charge to address police assaults

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Monday she is seeking General Assembly legislation to crack down on police misconduct — including creating a new felony charge for officers accused of assaults that are now considered misdemeanors.

The mayor's proposals come as demonstrators in Baltimore and across the nation have protested the deaths in several cities of unarmed men killed by police and a Baltimore Sun investigation described cases of alleged police brutality since 2011.

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"We've made a lot of progress in repairing the breach between the police and the community," Rawlings-Blake said in announcing the package of bills she is seeking. "But I think it would be unwise of us to stop there. This legislation is about continuing to press forward."

One bill would create a new felony "misconduct in office" charge for police officers. It is designed to address a provision of Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights that allows police commissioners to suspend officers without pay only if they are charged with a felony. The new misconduct offense could be charged when an officer is accused of committing any misdemeanor crime punishable by more than a year in jail, such as second-degree assault.

A second bill would speed up the process through which the police commissioner can discipline an officer who avoids a court conviction through a probation-before-judgment sentence in a felony or serious misdemeanor case. In such cases, the mayor's legislation would remove the officer's right to have a hearing before a trial board before the commissioner decides a final punishment.

A third bill would seek to increase the scope of the Civilian Review Board to hear a wider variety of complaints against all officers inside city limits, including those on state agency forces such as the Maryland Transit Administration police.

The legislation follows a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation that showed the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police brutality since 2011. The cases resulted in broken bones, head trauma, organ failure and even death, the investigation showed.

Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of Baltimore's House delegation in Annapolis, said he would act as lead sponsor on the mayor's bills. He said they are among a wide range of bills targeting police brutality planned by city legislators, including bills that would create standards for police body cameras.

The proposals are drawing criticism from statewide organizations of law enforcement officers, though Anderson said he believes the city's bills have a good chance of passing because they are not overly aggressive in overhauling the Officers Bill of Rights.

"I think a majority of representatives of the larger jurisdictions understand there is a problem that needs to be fixed," Anderson said of police brutality. "There are going to be long and arduous hearings on the bills. I predict there will be changes, but how many, I don't know."

Some law enforcement groups are objecting to the proposed changes to the Officers Bill of Rights, which requires that disciplinary actions against police go through a three-person trial board that makes decisions based on the preponderance of the evidence.

Before the board's decision, the police commissioner may suspend an officer without pay only if he or she is charged with a felony.

Vince Canales, president of the Maryland State Fraternal Order of Police, said the bills are misguided.

"It's a disservice being done to law enforcement officers," he said. "We're out here doing the work."

Canales said officers should not be stripped of their right to due process before a trial board if they receive a sentence of probation before judgment.

Probation before judgment "is afforded to any citizen," he said. "That, in and of itself, should not remove the ability of the officer to defend himself or herself before a trial board."

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Canales said the bill calling for a felony charge against police in misdemeanor cases should pass only if it applies to elected officials and other government workers.

"If the mayor's going to introduce it, she should include herself and other elected officials as well," he said.

Del. John W. E. Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican and former law enforcement officer, said the bills will likely meet with strong opposition.

"They're going to have a fight on their hands," he said. "No other agency is having the problems that Baltimore City is having. At the end of the day, in every case, the commissioner still has the right to fire somebody. I don't see the need to change a document that protects hundreds of good officers because of a few bad apples in one jurisdiction."

In most jurisdictions, police commissioners have the authority to fire officers even if a trial board recommends a lesser punishment.

For instance, in 2010, then-Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld fired a police officer who was seen on video berating and pushing a 14-year-old skateboarder at the Inner Harbor in 2007. A trial board recommended the 19-year veteran officer, Salvatore Rivieri, be suspended for six days and lose six days of leave. But Bealefeld argued that Rivieri had brought "discredit upon and undermined public confidence" in the department.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the legislation she proposed would make it easier to discipline officers more quickly.

"If the police commissioner doesn't have full power to discipline officers, then we're not going to be as effective as we could be," he said. "What these two bills do is allow the police commissioner to have more authority, more leeway to punish officers more expeditiously when they are engaged in wrongdoing."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, who sits on the public safety committee, said he believes officers should be treated no differently than regular citizens if they are charged with a crime.

"With regular citizens, if they're charged [with a crime,] they miss work, they don't get paid," Scott said. "We know that a lot of changes have to be made about how our law enforcement officers operate."

Baltimore Sun reporter Mark Puente contributed to this article.

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