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Maryland Senate committee holds hearing on reforming police while trying to define what that means

Montgomery County Senator Will Smith, chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, opened three days of hearings into police reform legislation on Tuesday, saying the issues are too complex and too important to wait until the General Assembly convenes.
Montgomery County Senator Will Smith, chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, opened three days of hearings into police reform legislation on Tuesday, saying the issues are too complex and too important to wait until the General Assembly convenes. (Algerina Perna / The Baltimore Sun)

Amid the growing national debate over police brutality and race relations, a Maryland Senate committee convened Tuesdayto discuss a slew of potential police reform legislation in advance of next year’s General Assembly.

Tuesday’s Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing lasted five hours and touched on seven different pieces of legislation, ranging from establishing a use-of-force policy for all of Maryland’s police departments to eliminating no-knock warrants.

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In a sometimes-tense meeting punctuated with accusations of anti-police sentiment and partisan tactics, chairman Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the issues were too important to be derailed by a pandemic or to wait for the customary start of the general session early next year.

“This is a matter of such importance that we’re starting early,” he said, while stressing throughout the meeting that the bills are in early draft form and still have time to be amended before a formal vote.

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The bills look to address a wide-ranging and at times disjointed compilation of police reform issues. One looked atcreating a statewide public database for complaints filed against police officers, while another explored limiting departments' ability to procure military surplus equipment.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first of three on a larger package of proposed police reform legislation that will end Thursday.

The hearings come amid a national debate following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police and several other high-profile incidents. Supporters of reform are hoping the current climate will help them overcome long-standing obstacles, including the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which offers a broad range of protections for police officers accused of wrongdoing.

Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who wrote several of the bills, said other states have already acted on measures the legislature is now debating.

“We’re one of only nine states that do not have a statewide statute defining use of force,” Carter said. “It lets the public know what the standard is [and] ... it also lets officers know and offers clarity on what’s expected of them.”

A number of Maryland residents related to those who were previously shot or killed by police officers also spoke in favor of the legislation. They includedTawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West who was killed by Baltimore Police and Morgan State University police in July 2013.

Jones has continued to advocate on behalf of her brotherfor several years, arguing that he was wrongfully killed by police, while the officers involved in the fatal struggle were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.

She said she supported Carter’s proposals, saying that police are “not judge, jury and executioner" while also invoking Breonna Taylor’s death in support of eliminating no-knock warrants.

“We have Breonna Taylors right here in our own city,” she said. “You guys need to come along and be black in our community.”

The proposals met opposition from Republicans on the committee, who accused Smith and Democrats of an overly hastened process that favored Democratic bills in reaction to national news.

Before the meeting, the Maryland Senate Republican Caucus sent a letter to Senate President Democrat Bill Ferguson, writing that the committee was only considering “15 bills that would certainly result would certainly result in less policing.”

It was a sentiment echoed during the meeting itself, as several Republicans said the nature of the meeting did not allow for a more bipartisan approach to crafting legislation.

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Sen. Christopher West, a Baltimore County Republican, said he was not asked to prepare bills before the meeting and that complaints against police have been declining in the county, down to 50 complaints in 2019 compared with 128 in 2010.

“I’m concerned about policing in my county. I’m certainly not going to do anything that’s going to cause the morale of police officers in my county to go down,” he said.

Sen. Robert Cassilly, a Harford County Republican, pointed to Baltimore City’s woes, saying, saying, “As we are undertaking this hearing on police accountability, the citizens of Baltimore are suffering from an unprecedented level of shootings and murders.”

“Police are not the problem here,” he added, calling them “victims of the failure of governance.”

As to the bills themselves, several spoke out in favor of establishing a statewide database tracking police complaints as well as offering police officers whistleblower protections under the law when reporting on police misconduct.

But there was considerable opposition on measures that would define what is acceptable conduct.

On the use-of-force standard bill, several Republicans and Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger objected to language in the bill, arguing it placed the burden on officers to prove their innocence in use-of-force cases, against the constitutional right of presumption of innocence.

“Are we setting up an impossible standard for use of force?” said Carroll County Republican Justin Ready.

Howard County State’s Attorney Richard Gibson spoke against the elimination of no-knock warrants, arguing that it would hinder officers' ability to secure drugs and evidence in ongoing investigations.

Proposing a theoretical situation where officers have to knock on an alleged drug dealer’s door, Gibson said, “What would happen next is the toilet would flush, the contraband would be removed [and] ... the person pushing drugs into our community would not be held accountable.”

Some bills did see wider consensus, such as the police database bill, which continues to be a hot topic ever since 19-year-old Anton Black who died after an encounter with police on the Eastern Shore in 2018.

The officer involved, Thomas Webster IV, had previously been banned from seeking employment as a police officer in the city of Dover, Delaware, after he arrested for kicking an unarmed man in the head while working as a police officer in that city.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said the department supports the idea of the list “conceptually” but had issues with the current language of the bill, echoing the positions of others on the board.

While Baltimore County Democrat Sen. Charles Sydnor argued that keeping the entire process open would also help publicly exonerate officers who had been falsely accused of misconduct, several senators and officials said they did not want to make all complaints public. Several argued it could damage the reputation of officers by posting complaints in full before an investigation of their credibility.

“The people who are in the public database for charges have met the probable cause standard,” said John Nesky, chief of police of the city of Bowie.

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“We are all in for a database. It’s just a matter of tweaking some of the details,” he added.

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