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Maryland legislators debate lifting caps on how much cities can be forced to pay for rogue police actions

A Maryland Senate committee discussed a package of bills Wednesday aimed at increasing police accountability, including legislation that would eliminate the financial cap on what police departments are forced to pay for actions of their officers.

The legislators debated state law that generally limits the amount local governments can be forced to pay at $400,000 per plaintiff or $800,000 for claims connected to a single incident after the General Assembly increased the previous cap in 2015.

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Baltimore attorney Lawrence Greenberg brought up the case of Daquan Wallace, a 20-year-old detainee inside the Baltimore City Detention Center who was beaten and left with a traumatic brain injury in 2014, according to a lawsuit.

A city jury awarded Wallace $25 million in September 2019, but the amount is capped at $200,000 under the current law due to the incident happening in 2014, which Greenberg said wouldn’t even cover Wallace’s medical expenses.

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“[He’s] incurred close to half a million dollars in medical bills,” he said. “He can also never work. A life of never being able to provide for himself or others.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, is the sponsor behind the bill and made similar statements earlier in the meeting, saying that “a lot of the times, their medical expenses will far exceed whatever they’re able to recover.”

The legislation received pushback from some Republicans on the committee, primarily from Sen. Michael Hough, a Republican who represents Frederick and Carroll counties, who said that lifting the cap could put smaller jurisdictions at risk for lawsuits that seek monetary amounts that would cripple smaller police departments' budgets.

He said a number of smaller municipalities in Western Maryland have police departments with budgets between $1 million and $3 million and that lifting the $400,000 cap on settlements could open the door for plaintiffs to seek amounts some jurisdictions won’t have the ability to pay.

“How do you continue to have a police force when you are, at any time, facing unlimited liabilities?” Hough said.

Mike Winkelman, a Prince George’s County-based attorney, countered that many small towns purchase annual insurance to cover against the possibility of such claims and said he’s not aware of any police settlement on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in recent memory where the newly proposed law would apply.

The issue of police worn body cameras proved to be contentious as Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Baltimore County Democrat, introduced bills that would look to expand how often police body worn camera footage is released to the public. It would also prohibit officers from testifying in cases where they’re found to have deliberately not turned on their body worn camera if they should have.

“We’ve had incidents here in the state of Maryland . . . of where law enforcement . . .have done things to undermine the use of that body camera footage,” Sydnor said.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who opposed several bills Monday, said he supported Sydnor’s bill regarding the release of body worn camera footage, saying that it mirrored the language behind Baltimore County Police Department’s policy regarding body worn camera footage. The draft bill currently includes several exceptions for police to withhold body worn camera footage, including in cases where it would “interfere with a valid and proper law enforcement proceeding,” according to the bill’s summary.

But Shellenberger added that he wanted the language to be tweaked to include more leeway for law enforcement to release footage that could aid in calming public unrest. He also opposed the other body camera bill regarding officer testimony, saying that it could significantly limit how officers can testify in trials if they merely forget to turn on the body worn camera.

One piece of legislation regarding moving police misconduct investigations over to the State Prosecutor’s Office also saw an unusual consensus between Republicans on the board and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

The bill would give the State’s Prosecutor’s Office jurisdiction over those investigations, giving Charlton Howard’s office the power to dictate when and how investigations into alleged police misconduct would take place. That would happen before his office handed a recommendation to the local State’s Attorney’s office as to whether to prosecute.

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Howard said that “given adequate resources, we could take on this new role” but others pushed back, saying it’s taking the power away from elected officials with more understanding of their local jurisdictions.

Sen. Hough did not speak favorably of the bill, but joked that he might support it because it would take investigatory jurisdiction over police complaints away from Mosby, who he said “has been anti-police” and “has been too quick” to charge officers with crimes.

“It strikes me as ironic that you would remove the Baltimore City State’s Attorney ... under the presumption that we’re somehow undercharging police,” Hough said.

Meanwhile, Mosby argued that taking investigatory power away from her office would undermine the will of Baltimore residents who voted her into office. By contrast, she said, the State Prosecutor is appointed by the governor after being vetted and nominated by the State Prosecutor Selection and Disabilities Commission.

“My police integrity unit is made up of prosecutors who are walled off from other prosecutors in my office,” she said, adding that the bill “wholly ignores that the state prosecutor is appointed by the governor.”

“[Voters] can vote me out as was the case in St. Louis, as was the case in Chicago and as was the case in Atlanta," she said.

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