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Maryland Senate OKs wide-ranging police reform bill, but differences remain with the House

Following two late nights of emotional debate, Maryland’s state senators on Thursday approved a sweeping police reform bill that revamps the disciplinary process for problem police officers.

Sen. Jill P. Carter, who has fought for years for better discipline and oversight of police, said the measure is an important step forward to making sure that police don’t abuse their power to the detriment of people of color, people with disabilities and others who are vulnerable.

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“It removes the veil of secrecy from the process, which has been a problem. Everyone has complained about this over many years,” said Carter, a Baltimore Democrat.

The bill removes the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a 1970s law that affords protections for police officers accused of wrongdoing or crimes on the job. In its place is a multistep system that includes an investigation, a charging board that would recommend discipline, and a trial board for officers who want to challenge their discipline. Civilians would have roles in parts of the process.

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Repealing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights has been a key goal of advocates for racial equality and social justice. They’ve argued that too few bad police officers face consequences for their actions and that there’s little meaningful oversight of the process.

Police unions and their supporters, meanwhile, have said there needs to be a clear and fair system for discipline. They’ve sought to limit the scope of police personnel records that can be made public.

The bill also increases the maximum amount of payouts in lawsuits against police departments, makes it possible for police to lose their pensions for committing certain crimes, and makes other changes.

Carter, in an emotional speech, said Maryland is long past due for serious reforms.

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“While we’re here because many of us, and all people across the world, were moved by George Floyd, I want to remind us that is not unique. Maryland, our state, has tragedy after tragedy after tragedy,” she said.

“The system is broken for too many of us,” said Sen. Malcolm Augustine, a Prince George’s County Democrat who spoke movingly of the fear he feels, worried that an officer might see him as a threat. “That’s why this Police Reform and Accountability Act is so important. It is there to protect those who feel no protection.”

The vote on the bill was 32-15, with mostly Democrats in favor and mostly Republicans opposed.

But there are many steps before policing reform heads from the legislature to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk for his consideration.

The bill that was passed by the Senate on Thursday is sponsored by House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, and already cleared the House. But the Senate made a number of significant changes, so now the bill goes back to the House, which can agree to the changes or request a conference committee of delegates and senators to work out the differences.

Meanwhile, the Senate had passed nine separate bills on changes to policing earlier this session and sent them to the House. The House is in the process of tweaking and passing those bills, in some cases combining them together.

The various proposals hanging in the balance run the gamut of policing issues, ranging from the disciplinary process and the availability of personnel records to who can charge police officers in court and what types of force are appropriate for officers to use.

With only 10 days left in the annual legislative session, much remains up in the air on the biggest issue facing lawmakers.

Spurred by protests for racial equality and against police violence that swept through Maryland and across the nation last summer, Democratic leaders in the General Assembly pledged to make policing reforms a top priority this year.

The fact that each chamber of the legislature took its own approach to policing reform — the Senate with multiple bills, the House with one bill — has frustrated some Republicans.

“This has turned into a House-versus-Senate thing,” said Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican who is the minority whip.

While there’s a fair amount of overlap between the Senate’s multiple bills and the one broad bill from the House, they’re going to be difficult to reconcile, he said. Already, the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee and the full Senate have spent many hours and long nights on the issues.

Now, he said, “We have to re-fight and re-litigate every single piece of it.”

Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, at one point asked how the bill that was being passed Thursday stacked up to what the Senate previously passed. Sen. William C. Smith Jr., chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, explained that while the two approaches are different, they’ve gotten “closer.”

“I’m very troubled by the whole situation we’re in,” Klausmeier said. She voted against the bill, according to the unofficial tally.

Republicans raised policy concerns, as well. Hough said he worries police officers will quit rather than face a complicated discipline process. Sen. Ed Reilly of Anne Arundel County — who ended up voting for the bill, according to the unofficial tally — said the rules being laid out may work for large departments but not small ones, like the five-person police force in Crofton.

The bill now goes back to the House of Delegates for consideration. In its original version, it passed the House 96-40, largely along party lines.

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