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Mayor says it should be easier to discipline 'bad apple' police officers

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake urged lawmakers Tuesday in Annapolis to make it easier to discipline "bad apple" police officers, saying it is essential to restore public trust in law enforcement.

But she came in for tough questioning from critics who contend the proposed legislation would deprive officers of their right to fight to hang onto their jobs.

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Appearing before the House Appropriations Committee, Rawlings-Blake asked to expand the circumstances under which police officers convicted of a crime can be disciplined by their department without the right to appeal.

The bill would deny trial board hearings to officers convicted of serious misdemeanors, offenses with potential penalties of a year or more in jail. Under current law, only officers convicted of felonies can be disciplined without the right to appeal.

Rawlings-Blake said that under current law, officers convicted of offenses such as perjury and second- and fourth-degree assault can remain on the payroll for months while their departmental discipline is decided.

"The status quo is not enough" in light of widely publicized incidents in New York, Ferguson, Mo., and Madison, Wis., Rawlings-Blake said. "We have to be more serious about removing bad officers from the force."

Members of Baltimore's police union countered that Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights does not prevent disciplining bad officers and that changing it would deprive officers of the due process that citizens expect under the legal system.

Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, said plenty of officers have been terminated under the current law, including nearly 300 in Baltimore.

The current system, Ryan said, is "not to protect bad officers, it's to protect good officers."

Del. Michael A. Jackson, a former Prince George's County sheriff, said he had not had any difficulty in removing bad personnel under the existing system. The Prince George's Democrat contended that officers accused of wrongdoing actually have fewer constitutional rights than other citizens, who are not required to speak to authorities if charged.

Rawlings-Blake proposed the legislation after a Baltimore Sun investigation showed that the city has paid nearly $6 million in court judgments and settlements since 2011 in about 100 lawsuits alleging police brutality. The cases resulted in broken bones, head trauma, organ failure and even death, the investigation showed.

The bill dealing with officers' rights to appeal disciplinary action is one of three measures Rawlings-Blake is pursuing to crack down on police misconduct. Another bill would make it easier to suspend an officer without pay through a new felony charge of "misconduct in office," which would be grounds for suspension. A third bill would broaden the authority of civilian review boards to hear complaints against all police units in the community. Those bills have not yet had hearings.

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