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Maryland senators work late into night weighing police legislation as lawmakers try to reach deal on potential landmark changes

A battle over potential landmark policing legislation in Maryland returned Wednesday to the state Senate floor as lawmakers considered an amended version of a wide-ranging bill that, despite criticism from Republican legislators and police unions, sailed through the House of Delegates.

Debate stretched on well past midnight as opponents of the sweeping bill, most of them Republicans, hammered their criticism in speech after speech and pressed a series of failed amendments to strip out provisions they argued would drive officers from the profession or bankrupt local governments with the cost of lawsuits over police abuses. Senators broke just before 1 a.m. with more amendments in the offing and before taking a preliminary vote on the bill itself.

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Supporters argued the legislation, backed by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, would transform how police are disciplined in Maryland, adding greater transparency and more civilian oversight, and bring much-needed reforms aimed at limiting instances of excessive force or other abuses.

While the bill’s progress so far brings top Democrats in the General Assembly closer to fulfilling pledges to enact sweeping changes to law enforcement following mass protests last summer, much ground remains to be covered as the legislative session ticks toward its final day April 12.

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A preview of a potentially bruising fight came Tuesday night during hourslong negotiations on Jones’ bill in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Senators rewrote portions of her legislation and traded barbs with one another over some provisions. Ultimately, the committee signed off on the bill in a late-night vote that broke along party lines.

The committee’s amendments mean that even if the Senate passes the bill, lawmakers will need to hammer out differences between the Senate version and the one the House passed by an overwhelming margin earlier this month.

What’s more, sizable gaps remain between the speaker-backed bill — the Police Reform and Accountability Act of 2021 — and a package of nine policing bills that cleared the Senate by wide margins in February. None of those bills have received a vote in the House of Delegates.

The House bill, for instance, would create a state agency tasked with investigating deaths at the hands of police but leave decisions about whether to prosecute officers in the hands of the state’s attorney for that county. The Senate package wouldn’t change how those deaths are investigated — but would grant the Office of the State Prosecutor authority to bring criminal charges against officers if local prosecutors don’t.

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Maximum payouts in lawsuits against law enforcement agencies in state courts would more than double under the House bill, jumping from $400,000 to $890,000, a provision that drew stark warnings from Republicans and some county leaders who warned such payouts would bust local government budgets. But a majority of senators shot down efforts to alter those limits, citing the need to better compensate victims in particularly egregious cases of police brutality.

Officers convicted of felonies or certain misdemeanors — mostly offenses committed on-duty or dealing with their credibility — would be stripped of their pensions under a provision in the House bill. That raised strenuous objections Tuesday from several Republican senators during committee negotiations and again on the floor Wednesday night; they noted that no other rank-and-file public employees in Maryland face similar sanctions.

Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican, called it “unconscionable” and a “mean-spirited” threat to “impoverish” career officers and their families over a criminal conviction.

A GOP-backed effort to strip that provision from the bill failed Tuesday on a party-line vote, but another amendment from Democratic Sen. Ron Young of Frederick County that would leave it up to judge whether to actually seize a convicted officer’s pension passed on the floor late Wednesday.

Several Democrats defended it as a reasonable accountability measure. Sen. Arthur Ellis of Charles County, who served in the U.S. Air Force, likened it to the tough sanctions that accompany a dishonorable discharge from the military.

“If you’re not intending to commit a crime in the course of your duties you’re going to be just fine,” said Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, who called some of the objections to it “absurd.”

Perhaps the most contentious differences revolve around how each piece of legislation would transform the disciplinary process for officers accused of misconduct and increase civilian oversight of complaints against police. Both would repeal the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a 1974 act that enshrines a series of job protections and due process rights for officers in state law, but the two approaches envision fundamentally different processes.

In the House version, newly created “administrative charging committees” would decide complaints against officers and levy discipline based on a uniform statewide matrix of punishments. The police chief or sheriff of an agency could only increase the punishment. The Senate version puts more discretion in the hands of the chief or sheriff.

Republican senators complained about the handling of the policing legislation. The Senate, several claimed, was essentially being steamrollered by the speaker’s bill after senators spent weeks striking compromises on their own policing package, in which eight of the nine bills they passed had bipartisan support.

Rather than sending the various House and Senate bills to a conference committee to iron out details, Republican Sen. Michael Hough of Frederick County said Wednesday that it seemed Democratic leaders “made the choice to rush them to the governor’s desk.”

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan must sign or veto within six days — not counting Sundays — any bill the legislature sends him during the session, or else it becomes law without his signature. With the session ending April 12, using that strategy would require lawmakers to pass bills and send them to the governor by Monday.

“I think we were destined to have a failing product from the beginning,” Hough told colleagues Tuesday. “Both chambers didn’t start with similar legislation, neither chamber conferenced it, we’re taking the House bill in one day and trying to rewrite it.”

The criticism wasn’t confined to Republicans: Sen. Michael Jackson, a Democrat and former sheriff from Prince George’s County, blasted the speaker’s bill earlier in the week. He also accused the delegates who helped craft it of refusing to compromise and wanting “to get rid of policing.” But Jackson, a career law enforcement officer who once led the Prince George’s County Fraternal Order of Police, ultimately voted for the legislation as it moved out of committee.

It remains to be seen what position Hogan might take. He hasn’t weighed in on any of the policing proposals under serious consideration.

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