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Maryland House of Delegates passes sweeping policing legislation

The Maryland House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed a wide-ranging package of policing legislation Thursday evening that would change how law enforcement officers in the state are trained, investigated and disciplined.

The bill, backed by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, would pare back decades-old job protections for officers, overhaul how complaints are handled, add civilians to boards that weigh allegations of misconduct and allow the public to access internal affairs records of individual officers.

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Many of the proposals in the Police Reform and Accountability Act are similar to bills the state Senate passed earlier this month by wide margins, setting the stage for negotiations between the chambers over the details of what some lawmakers described as the most substantial police reform package in decades.

“This is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that is meant to protect all of our citizens,” said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Black Democrat from Howard County who helped craft the bill. She gave an emotional speech during the debate about her family’s experiences of racial profiling and unfair treatment by police and her concerns for her children.

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Supporters hailed some of the provisions — such as replacing the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a 1974 slate of job protections for officers, with a new statewide disciplinary process — as the kind of changes long demanded by communities that have complained of police brutality, misconduct and too little accountability for corrupt officers.

Other portions of the bill would create an independent statewide agency to investigate police shootings. Chiefs and sheriffs would be required to largely follow a single, uniform matrix of penalties when doling out discipline to officers who break regulations and departmental policies, while officers looking to move between agencies would have to turn over past complaints and disciplinary records as part of their applications.

Those provisions are unique to the House bill and aren’t in the Senate’s package.

But, like those Senate bills, the speaker-sponsored legislation would impose additional hurdles for officers seeking no-knock warrants or conducting nighttime raids, require officers across Maryland to wear body cameras by 2025 and give regulators new powers to strip officers of their badges, among other measures.

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A veto-proof majority of delegates backed the bill 96-40, despite vociferous opposition from police unions and nearly every House Republican. They ripped it as “radical” legislation driven by “far-left” activists and said some provisions would tie the hands of police, strip good officers of due process rights and deter potential recruits from the profession.

Several Republicans acknowledged reforms are needed to address police brutality, unfair treatment of minority residents and a lack of public trust in the concept that law enforcement holds itself accountable. But they argued that some provisions in the bill, including allowing the public release of unsubstantiated complaints against officers and strict limits on executing search warrants at night, would go too far.

“This bill has just too many provisions that are bad policy,” said Del. Michael Malone, a Republican from Anne Arundel County.

Not all activist groups demanding major changes to policing were satisfied with the bill, either. Protesters rallied last week outside the State House in Annapolis seeking “real reform.” They blasted parts of the legislation as watered down and said it would make only incremental improvements.

Leaders of Maryland’s Democrat-controlled General Assembly championed the bills as a priority this legislative session, citing massive nationwide protests last summer following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, hasn’t weighed in on the measures. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson have vowed to pass major policing legislation into law with or without the governor’s support. Jones is from Baltimore County, Ferguson from Baltimore.

Veto-proof majorities in both chambers have now backed policing legislation with the House and Senate bills including a number of similar measures. But key differences remain that will need to be hammered out in a potentially lengthy and difficult debate.

Activists criticized the House legislation’s process for handling allegations of misconduct. It would create a civilian committee to review internal affairs investigations and decide whether an officer should face administrative charges. It also would add a civilian majority to the trial boards — currently composed entirely of fellow officers — that decide an accused officer’s guilt.

Advocacy groups wanted a provision to instead allow jurisdictions to hand over disciplinary decisions to independent police oversight boards, arguing that’d allow counties or cities to take direct community control over police.

But several lawmakers, including Atterbeary, argued that would create a confusing patchwork of differing disciplinary processes.

Del. Gabriel Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat and vocal critic from the party’s left flank on policing issues, pushed an amendment late Wednesday to add such language to the bill, but delegates rejected it soundly on a voice vote.

Acevero ultimately voted for the bill Thursday night, telling colleagues that he still believed some parts fell short, but the package was the result of “arduous work” by lawmakers and activists and goes “further than we’ve ever gone before on police accountability.”

How to structure the disciplinary process is among the differences between the packages in each chamber. The Senate legislation would create a more streamlined process that doesn’t include the civilian charging board and would put more power in the hands of chiefs and sheriffs.

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