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Maryland lawmakers take first steps toward policing reform after George Floyd’s death during arrest

Delegate Vanessa E. Atterbeary chairs a new group looking at Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland.

Maryland’s state lawmakers took their first steps Tuesday toward enacting policing reforms in the wake of international protests about police brutality.

While other states have worked quickly since the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody to pass new laws, such as bans on chokeholds and increased training requirements, Maryland is taking a more deliberative approach.

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Del. Vanessa Atterbeary said the goal for lawmakers is to develop legislation that is “meaningful, impactful and not from a checklist.”

Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat, is chair of a bipartisan House of Delegates work group on policing reform that met Tuesday for the first time.

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She said being a Black woman with Black children motivates her to work to prevent disparate treatment of people of color by police.

“The urgency of this task weighs heavily on me,” she said.

The work group’s first meeting, which was held online, was designed to be largely educational, setting the stage for future discussions. But some lawmakers revealed areas of concern they want to tackle.

Several lawmakers expressed concern that past policing reforms haven’t had the effect they intended. Often, laws assigned duties to the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission, an agency that has a $10 million budget but lacks any enforcement power over police departments.

“Where is the bite throughout all of these bills?” asked Del. Wanika Fisher, a Prince George’s County Democrat.

For example, the commission sets guidelines for how police officers should be trained in “use of force,” such as when to put their hands on a subject, use a stun gun or fire a gun. But there’s no law that regulates when police officers can and cannot use force.

A persistent Del. Gabriel Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat, had to ask several times whether Maryland has a use-of-force law on the books before he got a direct answer from commission representatives.

“We just offer best practices,” said Charles County Sheriff Troy D. Berry, acting chair of the commission.

Lawmakers also learned that the commission issues annual reports on use of force by police officers — but the reports have only summary data and don’t include information about specific police departments.

Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat, questioned whether lawmakers had been using the correct strategy to pass responsibility to the commission, which lacks teeth and is made up mainly of police officials.

Maryland policing reform laws

Lawmakers floated suggestions for other areas to explore, such as requiring more frequent psychological examinations and fitness tests for officers and how to get more citizens involved in police oversight boards.

The Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission offers a 40-hour training program for citizens who sit on police review boards, but no one has requested that training, officials said.

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Members of the Baltimore Police Civilian Review Board have said they don’t have enough authority to effectively do their job overseeing the city’s troubled police force.

Members of the General Assembly work group plan to spend the summer and fall researching these and other issues, with an eye toward developing legislation that they would consider in their next session, scheduled for January. An online hearing is tentatively planned for Aug. 6.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones exhorted work group members to take the work seriously.

“This is a critical time in our national conversation about reforming systemic injustice,” said Jones. “Those three words — ‘reforming systemic injustice’ — need to be more than just words for millions of Black Americans, their families and their children.”

Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat who is Black, recounted being pulled over by an officer for a broken taillight and having four police cruisers show up. She asked one officer why it was necessary for so many officers to respond.

“We don’t know if you have a weapon on you,” she was told.

“Let me be clear: This is not a philosophical question for me,” she said. “This is personal.”

Last week, Jones and every other Democratic state delegate signed a letter to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, urging him to adopt changes at state law enforcement agencies, including banning chokeholds and shooting at vehicles and requiring officers to intervene when they see others using unnecessary force.

Hogan spokeswoman Shareese Churchill said in a statement: “Speaker Jones is right that these issues need to be examined carefully and thoughtfully, and we appreciate her leadership.”

“While several of the reforms she has raised are already implemented by our state policing agencies, the governor looks forward to reviewing the conclusions and recommendations of this work group.”

Meanwhile, the state Senate plans to hold hearings this fall on a slate of reform proposals put forth by Democratic Sen. William C. Smith Jr., chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

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