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Activists march to Maryland State House demanding no compromise, ‘real police reform’

A crowd of activists from across the state marched Thursday afternoon on the Maryland State House to demand “real police reform” from the politicians inside, illustrating fissures between protesters and many state lawmakers over just how far policing legislation should go.

The Annapolis rally wrapped up just as a key House of Delegates committee was set to begin voting on wide-ranging policing legislation sponsored by Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, and a day after the Maryland Senate passed a package of nine policing bills that several members hailed as the most consequential and transformative policing reforms in a half-century.

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But activists outside the State House dismissed some of those bills — particularly legislation that would repeal and replace the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a 1974 state law that outlines the disciplinary process for police and guarantees certain protections to officers accused of misconduct — as watered-down and timid half-measures that didn’t meet the public clamor for wholesale change.

“Today we cry out to tell our legislators: No to incremental change,” the Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, told the crowd before the march.

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Several speakers accused Democratic lawmakers of caving to pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police, the state’s (and the nation’s) largest police union, which has opposed many of the proposals and has defended the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights as a necessary protection that ensures rank-and-file officers are treated fairly by their commanders.

Mothers, sisters and cousins of men — most of them Black — killed by law enforcement in Maryland helped lead the rally and gave impassioned speeches demanding action from Democratic politicians who campaigned as progressives but now seemed ready to settle for consensus on the legislation.

Marion Gray-Hopkins, an activist whose son, Gary Hopkins Jr., was killed by police in Prince George’s County in 1999, blasted liberal Democrats who voiced support for their legislation but then “got with the [Fraternal Order of Police], got with their Republican counterparts and you changed it and you watered it down and it’s unacceptable.”

“We are not going to take this gut punch lying down. We’re coming out and we’re coming out swinging,” Gray-Hopkins said.

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She and other speakers urged the crowd to drive out of office lawmakers who waffled on their priorities. A stack of signs handed out to the crowd demanded “real police reform now” and contended that “compromise is not progress.”

Del. Gabriel Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat, denounced colleagues for “pandering and performative ‘wokeness’” for meeting with victims of police brutality and then passing “cosmetic legislation.”

“That ends today,” Acevero declared. “We don’t just intend on holding people accountable. We will change the very people who refuse to change the laws.”

The initial Senate proposal to scrap the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, backed by advocacy groups and sponsored by Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, would have abolished trial boards — panels of fellows officers that decide disciplinary complaints against police — and put nearly all disciplinary decisions into the hands of the chief or sheriff — or, if local jurisdictions voted to do so, with an independent civilian review board.

Backers, including the ACLU of Maryland and the NAACP, contended that giving a police chief sole power over discipline would give the community a single person to hold responsible for how officers are — or are not — held accountable over allegations of misconduct or brutality.

But over hours of contentious committee hearings, senators amended the bill to instead replace trial boards with similar civilian-majority panels that would weigh the evidence in internal affairs complaints.

“If we were tweaking something that already works, adding a couple of civilians to a police trial board would be great,” Little, the Baltimore reverend and NAACP leader, said Thursday. “But we’re not trying to tweak something that already works. We’re trying to fix something that’s very, very broken.”

The bill also would throw out a number of oft-criticized provisions in the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, including a requirement that internal affairs investigators wait at least five days before questioning an accused officer, but some other protections, such as the right to hold moonlight extra-duty jobs or do off-duty political work, were added back in.

Carter ripped the changes as “appalling” but later came around to support the package on the Senate floor, calling the final product imperfect but nonetheless “the most comprehensive reform that we’ve ever done.”

Other senators hailed the package of legislation as the product of a hard-won consensus that would make groundbreaking changes to policing in the state. Sen. William C. Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and played a major role in shaping the Senate package, described the cumulative bills as “transformative.”

The alliance of advocacy groups that organized the march — the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability — has focused on five pieces of legislation this session, including repealing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

The Senate on Wednesday signed off on three other priorities: returning the Baltimore Police Department to full local control, creating statewide criminal penalties for officers using excessive force, and changing the state’s public records law to allow access to internal affairs complaints and police disciplinary records.

The groups are also demanding that Maryland remove resource officers from schools. Several bills to do so are pending in the General Assembly but haven’t been voted on.

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