A slate of legislation touted by supporters as the most consequential law enforcement reforms in a half-century passed the Maryland Senate on Wednesday, moving the General Assembly closer to fulfilling vows from its leaders to tackle such issues following nationwide protests last summer.
Among the nine bills are provisions that would overhaul the disciplinary process for police officers accused of wrongdoing, scrap decades-old job protections that critics claim protect bad cops, create a legal duty for officers to report misconduct within their ranks, levy criminal penalties for officers who use excessive force and put body cameras on every officer in Maryland by 2025.
Each bill passed by wide margins, including six that won unanimous approval, and most received at least some bipartisan support. Even the most controversial proposal — allowing the public to see some disciplinary and internal affairs records, including complaints a department ruled baseless — passed 29-18, a majority large enough to override a potential veto.
The bills now head to the House of Delegates, where lawmakers are working on a similar package sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones. The Baltimore County Democrat has described the policing legislation as her top remaining priority this session.
After senators finished voting on the package, people in the chamber broke into applause. The bills had been rewritten extensively over weeks of marathon committee hearings marked by emotional debate.
Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, described the resulting legislation as a hard-fought consensus and the foundation for “durable and sustainable” change.
“We’re not always going to get everything that we want this session, but I look at this as a down payment on making things right in terms of how policing is affecting this community,” said Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore County and had criticized some of the measures as not going far enough.
“I have law enforcement in my family. I understand it’s a difficult job,” he said. “But it’s a job and all that we’re asking for is to be treated like people. That’s it.”
Overhauling the disciplinary process
Senators voted 33-14 to scrap the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a 1974 law that enshrines job protections for officers and a broad set of due process rights for those accused of misconduct, and replace it with a disciplinary process that would let a civilian-majority board decide complaints against officers.
Activists have long claimed the current law shields bad cops from discipline and have demanded its repeal. A wide majority of lawmakers appear to be on board with repealing it, although there remain sharp disagreements over what sort of disciplinary process should replace it.
The proposed law would ditch many of the most criticized elements of the current law — including a provision that forced internal affairs investigators to wait at least five days before questioning an accused officer — and significantly overhaul the disciplinary process for those facing complaints.
The bill would ditch trial boards — essentially juries made up entirely of fellow officers who currently decide whether an officer committed wrongdoing — in favor of civilian-majority panels that would weigh complaints and determine responsibility. It also would allow police chiefs to immediately discipline officers criminally convicted of wrongdoing, skipping time-consuming internal investigations and hearings in such cases.
Public access to police disciplinary records
The sharpest divisions in the Senate came over a bill that would allow the public to request copies of internal affairs complaints and other disciplinary records of individual officers. Those types of files are personnel records and shielded from public view under Maryland’s Public Information Act.
Under the change, agencies still could redact personal details like home addresses or phone numbers and block the release of files from active investigations or criminal cases.
Supporters of the bill — dubbed Anton’s Law in honor of Anton Black, a 19-year-old Eastern Shore man who died at the hands of police in 2018 — argue that the secrecy surrounding complaints has helped undermine public faith in law enforcement. The veil of secrecy, backers contend, leaves people in the dark about how complaints are handled and whether agencies do an adequate job of policing their officers.
Some lawmakers strenuously objected to releasing complaints that internal investigators deemed groundless or unproven. Releasing unfounded allegations against officers, opponents argued, could unfairly tarnish reputations, damage careers and humiliate officers’ families.
The bill passed the Senate 29-18.
New criminal charges for police brutality
Officers who kill or seriously injure a person while using excessive force — and any officer who witnesses a colleague using excessive force but doesn’t intervene to stop them — would face up to 10 years in prison under another bill passed by the Senate, 35-12. Officers who fail to render aid to people wounded by police would likewise face potential criminal sanction under the bill.
In addition to potential criminal charges, the bill would empower the Maryland Police Standards and Training Commission to strip officers who use excessive force of their law enforcement certification and ban them from the profession. The legislation also outlines a single use-of-force standard that applies to every agency in the state, establishes a legal duty for officers to report suspected misconduct and creates whistleblower protections for those who do so.
Limits on no-knock and after-hours police raids
Senators unanimously passed a bill aimed at limiting the use of no-knock warrants — where police officers execute search warrants by bursting into a person’s home without announcing themselves — by requiring that officers outline good reasons for not knocking and obtain written approval from both their supervisors and a state’s attorney.
Similar approvals would be required before officers are allowed to execute warrants between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Body cameras statewide by 2025
Nearly every law enforcement officer in Maryland will be required to wear a body camera by 2025 under another piece of legislation unanimously passed by the Senate.
Although most of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies have adopted body cameras, many smaller agencies — often citing a hefty price tag of storing and reviewing hours of footage — have not. A task force would study how best to implement the mandate and potentially provide financial assistance to smaller, cash-strapped agencies to offset the cost.
The bill also would make it far easier for courts to throw out testimony from officers who turn off their cameras or alter the footage. Such officers would be barred from testifying in court unless prosecutors could convince a judge that there was a genuine and innocent reason why the officer failed to properly use the body camera during an incident.
Less surplus military gear for Maryland police
Senators unanimously backed putting additional limits on the types of military hardware Maryland law enforcement agencies could buy from the U.S. Department of Defense under a federal program.
Many of the items that would be deemed off-limits — including weaponized aircraft and drones — are unlikely to be on the shopping lists of local police.
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But the bill also would limit the purchase of equipment such as grenade launchers, which many agencies use to fire tear gas and other crowd-control munitions.
State prosecutor to handle deadly police shootings
The Maryland state prosecutor’s office would gain statewide jurisdiction to investigate any death at the hands of police and potentially bring criminal charges under another piece of legislation passed unanimously by senators.
Local state’s attorneys would retain primary authority over cases where police kill someone, but the bill would allow the state prosecutor to step in and take a second look if county prosecutors declined to bring charges.
Local control of the Baltimore Police Department
Voters in Baltimore would be asked to decide if the Baltimore Police Department should be placed under full local control for the first time since 1860.
Although the Baltimore City Council handles the department’s budget, and the mayor holds the power to hire and fire the police commissioner, the department remains a state agency — at least nominally. That limits the power of the mayor and council to directly manage the operations and policies of the department, and means that state lawmakers must sign off on occasional structural changes.
A referendum on local control of the police would go before Baltimore voters in either 2022 or 2024 under the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously.
Counseling for officers
Every law enforcement agency in Maryland would be required to make mental health services available to officers at no cost under another bill passed unanimously by the Senate.