Maryland legislators and law enforcement officials debated Thursday whether lawmakers should repeal or repair the state’s Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, the controversial decades-old document that outlines the due process procedure for investigating and disciplining police misconduct.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has debated 13 other police reform bills over the past two days, leaving two for the final day of hearings: One would make a number of changes to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights and the other would repeal it entirely.
The bill of rights has come under fire in part because officers convicted of misdemeanor misconduct have been allowed to keep their positions until their cases are reviewed by a police trial board largely made up of other law enforcement officials. Even officers charged with serious felonies cannot be fired from their jobs until after a trial and conviction.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has lamented that the swift actions taken by police in Minnesota to fire the officers involved in the death of George Floyd would not be allowed under Maryland law.
The debate over the law had been brewing during the past two days' hearings. Some organizations contended the bills discussed prior to Thursday largely nipped at the heels of police reform rather than fully embracing it.
More than 75 groups and organizations signed a joint letter written by the ACLU of Maryland to the committee that called for the full repeal of the Bill of Rights, something echoed Thursday by ACLU’s senior staff attorney David Rocha.
“The time for meaningless tinkering around the edges of the [bill of rights] has long since passed,” Rocah said. “It is no accident that these special rights . . . exist only for the governmental employees with the most power over the public.”
“They exist not to ensure accountability, but to insulate those agencies from accountability,” he added.
Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who presented both bills but said she favored a full repeal, said the bill of rights' language preventing chiefs and sheriffs from swiftly terminating employees engaged in crimes or bad conduct has eroded trust in police.
“The foundation of public safety, at the very core of it is trust between people and police ... a trust that is broken,” Carter said. “One of the ways that we restore that is we determine as a matter of policy [that] we will no longer endorse a two-tiered system."
“The police," she added, “exist because of the very people they serve, so they should not be on a pedestal above the people.”
Several law enforcement officials said that while they’d be open to revising the current law, repealing it entirely would lead to more uncertainty rather than bring further reform.
Rodney Hill, a Baltimore County Police legal advisor who was previously chief of the Baltimore Police Internal Affairs Division until March 2018, said there are about 140 different police agencies in the state that would need to develop new policies and procedures if the bill of rights was repealed.
“The whole thing about police officers not being held accountable is simply not true,” Hill said. “I seriously believe we will be tied up for the next 10 years trying to fix all of the unintended consequences."
Michael Davey, the attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, which represents Baltimore Police officers, said the bill of rights does not stand in the way of police supervisors initiating internal investigations that run parallel to criminal investigations into alleged misconduct. He blames management, not the bill of rights, for some cases taking months to be brought in front of trial boards for official review.
Laurel Police Chief Russell Hammill III said that departments are still able to suspend officers without pay pending the outcome of an investigation and pointed to the Gun Trace Task Force investigation, in which nearly a dozen Baltimore Police officers have been sentenced to federal prison for a wide range of crimes. All of the officers “were immediately suspended,” he said, and “were not being paid and every single one of them resigned immediately.”
Deray McKesson, a local activist speaking on behalf of Campaign Zero, said that repealing the bill of rights has overwhelming support in the state, saying that a poll his organization conducted alongside YouGov found that 71% of Marylanders favor repealing the law.
“The disciplinary process should roll up to something that either is public or accountable to the public,” said McKesson, adding that only 21 states have similar bills of rights.