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Maryland General Assembly passes landmark policing legislation, sends package to Gov. Hogan

Maryland lawmakers passed a landmark police reform package aimed at delivering greater transparency and accountability Wednesday, sending the wide-ranging legislation to Gov. Larry Hogan after months of intense debate.

The package of legislation would rewrite how officers accused of misconduct are disciplined, create a new statewide standard for when officers are allowed to use force, impose new potential criminal penalties — including up to 10 years in prison — for officers who use excessive force, and grant public access to some police disciplinary records.

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Officers would need to jump through additional hoops to obtain no-knock search warrants or raid homes at night. Deaths of civilians at the hands of law enforcement anywhere in the state would be investigated by a newly created independent unit at the Maryland attorney general’s office. And officers convicted of certain crimes could be fired immediately and stripped of their law enforcement certification. All police agencies in Maryland would have to adopt body-camera use by July 1, 2025.

It’s unclear whether Hogan, a Republican, might veto part or all of the four-piece package. Law enforcement officials and Republican lawmakers loudly criticized certain provisions, including the prospect of making uncorroborated complaints against officers public, and argued some of the changes would treat good officers unfairly and risk driving them out of the profession.

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“This has clearly been a contentious process, but the governor will give thoughtful consideration to whatever bills come to his desk,” Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said Wednesday evening.

All of the bills passed by wide enough margins in both chambers to override any vetoes, if lawmakers don’t change their positions.

The sweeping package came after mass nationwide protests last summer against racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd, whose neck was knelt on for nine minutes by a Minneapolis police officer. Activists in Maryland have campaigned for changes for decades, citing scores of deaths involving police over the years, including Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015 and Anton Black in Caroline County in 2018. One of the bills that passed, which would open access to officers’ records, was named Anton’s Law.

Top Democrats, including House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones of Baltimore County and Senate President Bill Ferguson of Baltimore City declared police reform a priority for the 2021 legislative session.

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Leading Democrats said the final product, which emerged Wednesday from tense and high-stakes negotiations between the chambers, puts Maryland on a path toward curbing police misconduct and rebuilding broken trust in law enforcement.

Ferguson hailed the package as “the most comprehensive reforms to policing in generations.” Jones declared the bills “will have far-reaching, long-standing impacts on our communities and will improve the quality of life for more Marylanders for generations to come.”

Legislative leaders planned to present the bills Wednesday night to the governor.

“Policing is one of the most important public assets that we invest in, one of the most important things that we do. Every community, regardless of their ZIP code, regardless of their county … should have confidence in their police departments and in public safety,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “They should not be fearful.”

Clippinger said that, while not everyone agrees on the changes, it’s important to hold police to a high standard and that the bills “will do an enormous amount to help us feel that much more secure.”

Among the package’s central provisions is a repeal of Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a 1974 law. It enshrined in law a host of job protections for officers and rights for those who are accused of misconduct, something critics allege shields dirty officers from scrutiny or discipline. Maryland was the first state in the nation to pass such a law, which dozens of others have copied, and is now on the verge of becoming the first state to repeal it.

Complaints against officers would instead be weighed by a civilian administrative charging committee. Minimum punishments for each type of infraction or misconduct would be laid out by a disciplinary matrix and chiefs or sheriffs could only dole out tougher, but not lesser, sanctions. Officers convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors — including any crime committed on duty — could be fired immediately without a separate internal affairs investigation.

Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, said he thought one goal had been to create a uniform process for discipline. But with local oversight boards and charging committees, Hough said the outcome likely would be very different disciplinary results in conservative and police-friendly counties from those in more progressive cities.

Though most Republicans voted against the pieces of legislation, Del. Nic Kipke cast a green “Yea” for the bill, originally sponsored by Jones, that sets out a new disciplinary process for officers accused of wrongdoing. Kipke, who is the House minority leader, said he wouldn’t have supported the original version of the bill and even lost sleep over it.

“But I think what we’ve struck here is an appropriate middle ground and will do some good, and I’ll sleep comfortably tonight,” said Kipke, who represents Anne Arundel County.

He voted against a separate bill to rewrite use-of-force standards. Under that bill, an officer’s use of force would have to be the action that was “necessary and proportional” to keep someone from getting hurt or to “effectuate a legitimate law enforcement objective.”

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who shepherded the bills in the House, said the package reflected the hard work of members of both parties. She said she fielded endless calls, emails and text messages from delegates, influencing the final product. The end result, she said, is “groundbreaking legislation.”

“This body of work is something that every member in this chamber can be proud of,” the Howard County Democrat said. “I truly, truly believe that this is a piece of legislation that everyone in this chamber has had their hands on and has touched.”

Sen. Obie Patterson, a Prince George’s County Democrat who was born in 1938 in Lancaster, South Carolina, was moved to tears while thanking colleagues for pushing the package into law over strenuous objections from critics, including some who derided it as a rushed process.

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“I feel the time is now, more so than ever, for me to stand up and share a bit with you as a Black man, born in the South, born in a segregated situation with little opportunities or none to succeed. Born into an area where there was a white jail and a Black jail. Born into a system where it was only expected that a Black boy, a Black man,” said Patterson, pausing to collect his composure, “could only expect to get only a seventh-grade education.

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“And so I hear many of you talk about time, ‘We need more time.’ Well, how much more time do you think you’re going to need? We’ve waited two or three generations for this day,” he said.

The bills’ passage came with five days left in the General Assembly’s 90-day annual session.

The state constitution gives the governor six days — not including Sundays — to decide whether to veto bills sent to his desk while lawmakers are in session.

Some lawmakers have privately discussed potential options to override any potential vetoes from Hogan without waiting for next year’s regular session, including extending the current session past its scheduled end on Monday.

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