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Top Democrats in Maryland General Assembly project confidence on policing legislation

Top leaders of the Maryland General Assembly sounded notes of confidence Monday that a deal on major policing legislation is well within reach during the legislative session’s final week, despite some of their key members trading barbs over the state of negotiations.

Ambitious and wide-ranging changes to law enforcement are the remaining priority for House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and state Senate President Bill Ferguson.

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Large majorities of lawmakers in both chambers have backed major updates to state law — including overhauling how complaints against officers are handled, creating uniform standards governing the use of force, enacting new criminal penalties for officers using excessive force — but lawmakers haven’t yet reached a deal hashing out differences in how to approach those issues.

“I’m very confident we’re going to have a deal in time because we’ve put too much work in ... to not,” said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, as she headed back to the State House from a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday afternoon. “We’ve got a whole week.”

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“Nothing’s stuck. I think we are working through some marginal differences,” said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, on Monday afternoon. “I think both chambers are totally committed to getting this right and we will be moving in short order to make sure it gets done as soon as possible to get to the governor to sign.”

Both chambers have passed a comprehensive reform bill sponsored by the speaker but need to resolve differences over the exact details of some provisions. The House of Delegates, meanwhile, is still working its way through a package of Senate police bills.

A heavily rewritten piece of that package ― which would create an independent unit in the Attorney General’s Office to investigate civilian deaths involving police and also limit the types of surplus military equipment law enforcement agencies can acquire — passed the House of Delegates late Monday, 97-40.

The Senate-passed version of that bill would’ve given the Office of the State Prosecutor power to consider criminal charges against officers in police killings if local prosecutors decided against pursuing a case but wouldn’t have altered what agency investigates the case.

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Another bill to allow the public access to disciplinary records and complaints against law enforcement officers — which are considered confidential personnel records under current Maryland law — is still awaiting a House vote.

The deadline to hammer out a deal is midnight April 12, when the General Assembly’s annual 90-day session ends. Some leaders had hoped to send a package of policing bills to Gov. Larry Hogan by Saturday, which would have guaranteed lawmakers enough time to override any potential vetoes before the end of the session.

Hogan, a Republican, hasn’t weighed in on the proposals.

“We hope that the governor signs it and we’ll leave every option on the table if not,” Ferguson said.

The public optimism from the General Assembly’s two leaders came after an intense week of legislative action over policing legislation that featured several late-night voting sessions and ended Friday evening with an apparent standoff between the chambers over how exactly to move forward. Then, over Easter weekend, a handful of key Democrats lobbed criticism at one another on Twitter.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who chaired the speaker’s work group on policing, criticized several changes senators made to the speaker’s bill in a series of tweets. Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat, suggested that the Senate’s decision not to appoint a conference committee to formally work out the differences on that particular bill was a sign senators were more interested in claiming political credit than passing measures to hold police accountable.

“We just want the POLICY & REFORM,” Atterbeary wrote.

Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who played a central role in crafting the Senate’s policing package, called that “disingenuous” and shot back that delegates hadn’t yet voted on major portions of that legislation.

“Let’s quash the childish finger pointing, behave like adults & get it done,” Carter replied Saturday to Atterbeary. “Posturing at this stage is just not helpful.”

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