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Maryland lawmakers ready for floor debate on ‘transformative’ policing reforms

A raft of policing legislation that Maryland Senate leaders hail as “transformative” and the most far-reaching reform in four decades could pass in the chamber as soon as next week, after long hours of grinding committee debate and oft-contentious haggling over amendments.

The nine-bill package would overhaul the police disciplinary process in Maryland, fast-tracking punishment for officers convicted of crimes and giving civilians a voice in judging allegations of misconduct. It would also set a statewide use-of-force standard, including penalties of up to 10 years in prison for serious violations, and obligate officers to step in to stop instances of brutality and report misconduct by colleagues.

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Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, called the slate “the most comprehensive and transformative” attempt at changing police in Maryland. He framed it as a worthy answer to nationwide protests last summer about police brutality and growing demands from citizens for greater accountability and transparency in law enforcement.

A fight awaits at least some of the proposals on the Senate floor, including an effort to repeal the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — a 1974 law that guarantees job protections for police and additional rights for officers accused of misconduct — and a bid to allow the public to access some internal affairs records of officers.

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Similar battles are brewing in the House of Delegates, where Speaker Adrienne A. Jones has put her name on legislation that would tackle many of the same issues and is working its way to the floor. Progressive delegates have pressed for changes to the legislation.

Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, has vowed to pass the House legislation with a veto-proof majority. Ferguson, too, said he’s working to line up enough Senate support behind all nine policing bills to withstand any potential veto from Gov. Larry Hogan.

The Republican governor has not weighed in on the proposals.

The effort to scrap the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights could be particularly contentious. Police unions have criticized the push to repeal it as an unwarranted and unfair attack on their due process rights. Meanwhile, advocacy groups and even the proposal’s original sponsor, Democrat Sen. Jill Carter of Baltimore, characterized a disciplinary process proposed to replace it as only a slight improvement on the current system and far short of the overhaul they’d sought.

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Carter voted against her bill after other members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee removed a provision that would have allowed police departments to hand disciplinary decisions over to an outside civilian oversight board.

Carter praised the overall slate of reforms Friday, while maintaining her criticism of some particulars.

“Is this package that we passed perfect? No. Is it the most comprehensive reform that we’ve ever done? Yes,” said Carter.

“Restoring trust between people and police is essential; it is fundamental to the profession of policing and it has been worn down over generations of police misconduct,” she said. While those issues aren’t new, Carter said, “it is only now that we have the political will to address these injustices. We cannot wait another year.”

The prospect of releasing misconduct records — considered confidential personnel records and barred from release under Maryland’s Public Information Act — divided the Senate committee.

Republicans on the panel charged that releasing disciplinary records, especially from complaints that internal investigators deemed unfounded, could be used to smear the reputations of honest officers. They also noted it would give officers fewer privacy protections than other state workers or elected politicians.

But advocates argued there is widespread distrust in how law enforcement agencies handle complaints against officers and that some degree of transparency is essential to restore trust in the process.

LaToya Holley, the sister of Anton Black, a young man who died in police custody on the Eastern Shore in 2018, advocated for the proposed law. One of the officers involved in Black’s death had nearly 30 use-of-force reports, mostly from a previous job in Delaware.

“The struggle that we’ve gone through as a family, as a community, to just get justice for my brother and to find out information about what happened to him initially was a fight, and we are still fighting for justice,” Holley said at a news conference Friday with Senate Democratic leaders.

Other bills in the package would:

  • Make it far easier for defense attorneys to throw out court testimony from officers about searches or arrests if the officer didn’t use their body camera properly, as well as create a task force to consider requiring every law enforcement agency in the state to use body cameras.
  • Put new limits on the use of “no-knock” and nighttime warrants, requiring police to outline a “good cause” for not serving a warrant with a loud knock and during the day and getting advance approval from supervisors and a state’s attorney.
  • Give the Maryland State Prosecutor’s Office jurisdiction to review fatal police shootings and bring criminal charges against officers, if a state’s attorney declines to do so.

“While we can’t fix long-standing problems of inequitable policing overnight, I do believe the package of bills that we’re putting forth puts us on the right path,” said Sen. Charles Sydnor III, a Baltimore County Democrat and a member of the committee.

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