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Legislative panel hears pros and cons of revamping long-established protections for law enforcement officers

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the bipartisan House of Delegates work group on policing reform, had a blunt message on Thursday for those trying to preserve decades-old protections for police officers that critics say go too far. "Change is coming," she told those assembled at a legislative work group.
Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the bipartisan House of Delegates work group on policing reform, had a blunt message on Thursday for those trying to preserve decades-old protections for police officers that critics say go too far. "Change is coming," she told those assembled at a legislative work group. (Joshua McKerrow/Capital Gazette)

As calls for police reform continue across the country, legislators in Maryland listened for hours Thursday as law enforcement leaders and union attorneys expressed concerns about altering a decades-old state statute that give officers protections when they are accused of wrongdoing.

The legislative work group was formed earlier this summer to create statewide police reforms in the wake of nationwide protests, including many across Maryland, following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police office knelt on his neck.

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During Thursday’s discussion over the Zoom website, Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the bipartisan House of Delegates work group on policing reform, said she respected the work of law enforcement, but warned that the status quo is unacceptable.

“I have a great deal of respect for police,” she said, mentioning her grandmother, who was a sheriff’s deputy. But she also spoke of the challenges of being a Black mother to three children, including one son whose safety she is concerned he could be treated differently by police because he looks old for his age. She said legislators must act to make necessary reforms.

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“Change is coming,” she told the group of law enforcement leaders. “Right now we don’t have citizens feel they are involved. Community members don’t feel they can trust the police.”

Atterbeary asked other members whether they would support any opportunity for greater civilian participation “in a meaningful way.”

Karen Kruger, Legal Counsel for the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said civilians already have the opportunity to attend administrative panels for officers charged with misconduct. She noted that in 2016 the legislature passed a law allowing civilians to sit on those administrative boards.

However, Kruger said police chiefs must appoint citizens to the trial board and their appointment has to be approved by the local lawmakers. Only Baltimore Police have begun the process of including two civilian members on a trial board after requiring a lengthy training and selection process that was negotiated with the local police union.

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No other jurisdictions have added civilians to trial boards, she said.

Additionally, while trial boards are open the the public, it is difficult for citizens to follow cases. Case details, such as specific charges against an office are not posted on departments’ websites, making it difficult for citizens to know anything about a case before attending a hearing. Dispositions in trial board cases are also not made public.

Riverdale Police Chief David C. Morris opened the hearing, speaking on behalf of the Maryland Chiefs and Sheriffs Association, against the actions used by officers in Floyd’s death, calling them “inexplicable and inexcusable.”

But Morris said while law enforcement leaders did not condone those officers’ actions, reforms should be done carefully and not at the expense of officers’ right to due process that is included in the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. The law, passed in 1974, provide Maryland police officers the right to due process and protects them against unnecessary investigation or prosecution.

“It remains our hope to improve accountability and transparency while supporting our officers and protecting due process,” he said. “We are committed to remaining at the [reform] table to work toward common ground.”

Much of the discussion focused on the challenges of repealing LEOBR.

Michael Davey, an attorney who has long represented police officers in both criminal and internal administrative hearings, said the legislators’ concerns about police transparency and accountability are not an issue with the LEOBR, but rather a police agency’s management.

“Management has to make discipline a priority,” he said.

Davey and other law enforcement leaders warned that LEOBR largely protects officers’ right to due process in an internal, administrative case, which is separate from any criminal charges they could face. Del. Gabriel Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat, questioned how those protections were any different from other state employees who have similar protections.

Davey responded that officers would have due process rights “consistent with the civil service policies with each jurisdiction. It would not be a straight state policy.”

Davey noted that there are 148 law enforcement agencies across the state. He also warned that repealing LEOBR would cause other issues, including interfering with law enforcement agency’s bargaining agreements, many of which include LEOBR provisions.

Repealing LEOBR would impact many provisions in those contracts.

“It’s going to create a legal mess” said Del. Susan McComas.

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