Del. Cheryl Glenn of the Legislative Black Caucus responds to the Department of Justice report. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)
The Legislative Black Caucus and Baltimore NAACP promised Friday to take an aggressive legislative agenda to Annapolis next year in response to the Justice Department's blistering report on the Baltimore Police Department.
That agenda will include proposing beefed-up protections for police whistleblowers, increased civilian oversight of police discipline, and sanctions against officers who conduct the type of unconstitutional searches and arrests described in the federal report.
"Let us never forget that there are too many cases of police brutality," said Del. Cheryl Glenn, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the black caucus.
At a news conference outside Baltimore's City Hall, lawmakers said they will put together a comprehensive list of proposals to address abuses uncovered in the report. Just as the death of Freddie Gray and subsequent rioting helped make criminal justice reform a central issue of this year's legislative session, the report ensures that it will remain at the top of the agenda in 2017.
Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of Baltimore's the all-Democratic House delegation, predicted that the report would have a significant impact when legislators gather for their annual 90-day session in January.
"It'll certainly give those legislators who've been pushing for these reforms a lot more gravitas to get them passed," he said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and top police officials invited the U.S. Department of Justice to undertake a thorough examination of policing in Baltimore after the death of Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered spinal injuries in police custody in April 2015.
The report detailed a broad pattern of abuse of citizens' constitutional rights and discriminatory treatment of Baltimore's black residents.
Del. Jill Carter of Baltimore, a longtime critic of police, outlined a 10-point list of topics she and other members of the caucus want the General Assembly to address.
Among other things, she vowed to pass legislation to protect officers who report police misconduct from retaliation by colleagues or command staff. The report detailed cases of officers being harassed and labeled as "rats" by fellow officers and superiors after informing authorities about mistreatment of citizens.
"Whistleblowing on unconstitutional conduct will be encouraged and completely protected," she said.
T.J. Smith, a spokesman for the Police Department, said Commissioner Kevin Davis agrees on the need for action.
"The police commissioner has been very outspoken about the need for changes to give police leaders more disciplinary authority," Smith said. "It will take legislation in Annapolis to effect the necessary changes."
The Justice Department report makes many mentions of the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, a state law that protects police in disciplinary cases.
The report concludes that in most cases, the department fails to hold officers accountable for such things as violating citizens' constitutional rights, using racial epithets or applying excessive force.
The legislature passed a law this year that permits but does not require Maryland jurisdictions to add civilians to the police review boards that hear complaints about officer misconduct. Many critics of the officers' rights law believed the new measure did not go far enough.
"We're going to go back to the drawing board and see that things are done correctly," said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of Baltimore's NAACP chapter.
Police unions oppose allowing civilians to sit in judgment of police in disciplinary cases.
Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents Baltimore officers, said the union would go to Annapolis to vigorously contest any weakening of the officers' rights law. He said the city's proposal to includes civilians on such boards is a sticking point in negotiations on a new contract to replace the one that expired June 30.
"If we're going to be judged, we have to have someone that knows what we go through," Ryan said. He said he does not see the need for new whistleblower protections because they are already provided in federal law.
State Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee and helped broker the compromises that led to passage of this year's law, said he expects the panel will deal with many bills arising from the Justice Department report. Some, he expects, will deal with the officers' rights law.
Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he plans to talk with his House counterpart, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, about scheduling a joint committee briefing on issues raised in the report.
Glenn said the black caucus would hold a hearing Oct. 6 in Annapolis to hear from experts and local residents as lawmakers work to translate issues raised in the report into legislation.