A package of bills to increase regulation of policing began to take shape Thursday during a meeting of a Maryland House of Delegates work group, one of two committees crafting legislation on the issue ahead of next year’s General Assembly session.
Over the span of two hours, delegates touched on more than a dozen proposals that could become legislation, including requiring police body cameras, a statewide use-of-force policy and mental health assessments for officers. Another would give the state attorney general the authority to prosecute officers involved in deaths or serious injuries.
The hearings come amid a national debate following the May death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and several other high-profile cases. Supporters of reform in Maryland hope the current climate will help them overcome what they see as long-standing obstacles, including a statute called the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.
Delegates coalesced Thursday around the proposed body camera requirement, with most agreeing the tool increases police accountability. Democratic Del. Curtis Anderson of Baltimore said the state should have protocols for when officers can turn cameras on and off, how data is stored and who has access to it.
Del. Gabriel Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he would like to see a greater penalty for officers who turn their cameras off without justification.
“What in essence you’re doing is tampering with potential evidence that can have a really big impact on a case they’re involved with in the future,” he said.
Republicans on the work group urged some caution. Del. Kathy Szeliga, who represents Harford and Baltimore counties, said many departments would like to have body cameras but are unable to afford them.
“If we’re going to mandate cameras, we’d better mandate some money to go with it,” she said.
Szeliga had the same concern about proposed mental health evaluations for officers, questioning who would foot the bill for mental health professionals.
Anderson, who introduced the proposal, said the current requirement to evaluate an officer’s mental health only when they are new to the job or after a traumatic incident falls short.
“We require police officers to qualify every year with their handgun," Anderson said. "We want to make sure their mental health status is good, as well, because these officers are carrying guns.”
Another Anderson proposal, to create a unit within the attorney general’s office to independently investigate and prosecute police officers who cause serious bodily harm or kill someone, divided the work group.
Del. Wanika Fisher, a Democrat representing Prince George’s County, argued for giving the attorney general’s office even more power to investigate other potential abuses of police power.
Republican Del. Jason Buckel of Allegany County pointed to testimony before the work group from four state’s attorneys last month who said they are best equipped to take problem officers to court.
The state Office of the Attorney General is “so inherently political, and it is sometimes divorced from the practice of law,” said Buckel, an attorney. “It would always lead to conflict and controversy.”
Both the attorney general and state’s attorneys, the top prosecutors in local jurisdictions, are elected by voters.
Legislators discussed the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights at length. The law includes a due process procedure for investigating and disciplining police misconduct. Its broad range of protections includes allowing officers convicted of misdemeanors to keep their jobs until their cases are reviewed by a police trial board, a panel largely made up of law enforcement officials. Also, officers charged with serious felonies cannot be fired unless they are convicted.
Anderson called for a repeal of the law, arguing existing rules on the discipline of other public employees also should cover police officers. Some tweaks would need to be made to those statutes to accommodate law enforcement, but it could be done, he argued.
“Every employee in the state of Maryland has those same rights, but we don’t call that a ‘Bill of Rights,’” he said. “It’s just an article that’s called ‘Disciplinary Action.’”
Buckel argued the law should be renamed, not repealed. He said the problem is a perception that police officers have their own Bill of Rights that’s different from the one in the U.S. Constitution, which is made up of the first 10 amendments.
Acevero likened changing the name of the law to putting lipstick on a pig.
“Changing the name of a fundamentally flawed law doesn’t address the problems that exist in that law that provides protections to officers that you and I don’t have," he said.
As the House work group grows closer to drafting legislation, a state Senate committee also has been moving forward on policing issues, discussing seven different pieces of potential legislation, ranging from establishing a use-of-force policy for all Maryland departments to eliminating no-knock warrants.
Senators also are considering proposals that would change how misconduct cases are investigated and prosecuted, requiring officers to intervene when colleagues use excessive force, banning departments from obtaining certain military surplus weapons, mandating psychological exams for officers every three years, and modifying or eliminating the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.
The House work group will reconvene later this month.