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Proposals for tougher police discipline process given better chance

Legislation to toughen the disciplinary process for police accused of wrongdoing — quashed by lawmakers last year — is given a better chance in the General Assembly session that starts this month.

A panel of senators and delegates studying how to improve police accountability has reached tentative agreement on at least three ideas to alter the rights of police officers and the process by which they are disciplined — moves backed by the state's associations of police chiefs and sheriffs.

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Among the changes expected to be approved when the task force meets this month: shortening how long officers can wait before talking about an incident to investigators, opening discipline boards to public scrutiny and allowing officers to be fired upon conviction of certain serious misdemeanor crimes.

The panel is also weighing a handful of other policies to recommend to the General Assembly, including extending the statute of limitations for victims of police brutality to file charges and requiring more mental health screenings for officers, according to interviews with lawmakers and a draft of proposed recommendations obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

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"Clearly, there are going to be changes," said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat and co-chair of the Public Safety and Policing Work Group.

"They realize that something needs to change," Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, a Baltimore County Republican on the panel, said of lawmakers. "They know that they've got to do something."

Anderson and Jennings emphasized that no final decisions had been made in advance of a scheduled Jan. 11 meeting, but their remarks demonstrate a shift in thinking in Annapolis from a year ago.

Then, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake proposed altering the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights that affords police officers certain protections when accused of wrongdoing. The more sweeping changes sought by the mayor, after a Sun report about police brutality, died in committee.

But legislative leaders created the policing panel to look at ways to improve police accountability, an issue that gained national prominence after African-Americans in Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Staten Island, N.Y., and Ferguson, Mo., died in highly publicized police-involved killings.

Maryland's bipartisan panel of lawmakers has sat through hours of testimony and attended police trial boards — the disciplinary proceedings that are often closed to the public. Panel members watched training sessions and visited with communities that distrust police. They have reviewed training requirements, the frequency of mental health screenings and questioned whether there should be tougher standards to become an officer in the first place.

Their next meeting is meant to shape the final recommendations on how Maryland should address what many perceive as a fraying relationship between police and the urban communities they serve.

The Maryland Fraternal Order of Police has resisted changes to laws that protect police officers, saying there's a public misunderstanding about how the laws work.

"We realize there is both a legislative and public sentiment to amend the law, and we've always had an open door and will continue to have an open door," said lawyer Frank Boston III, the lobbyist for the state FOP. "However, we strongly believe that the [law] has, historically, worked well."

Critics have attacked the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, saying it allows bad officers to stay on the force, while supporters point out that its procedures have been used effectively to discipline and fire officers who deserve it while protecting good officers from frivolous complaints.

That bill of rights has come under scrutiny for a provision that grants officers accused of wrongdoing 10 days after an incident before they are required to talk to investigators. The time is meant for officers to secure legal counsel, but critics say officers don't need that long and the delay contributes to public mistrust that departments are policing their own.

The FOP contends police departments use that time to conduct their own investigations before interviewing officers involved in an incident, and that the rights bill is designed to give departments of varying size more flexibility in deciding how to discipline their officers.

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The law was passed in the late 1970s, among the first of its kind in the nation, and grants police officers certain appeal rights and protections during internal investigations and administrative review. It has no authority over when and how officers can be questioned in a criminal investigation.

When Rawlings-Blake and others suggested changes to the rights bill a year ago, leading Democrats said the law had been in effect for more than 40 years, and it wasn't something that should be changed without thorough review.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they expect it to be changed this year, and the panel intends to recommend reducing that 10-day period by at least half, and possibly as few as three days.

That does not go as far as some advocacy groups had hoped.

"Maryland is at a crossroads," an advocacy group called Campaign for Justice, Safety and Jobs wrote to the panel. "It can either be a national leader on issues of police accountability, or it can be the state where leaders used the veneer of policing reform to continue the status quo."

That group is made up of 23 groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the state's NAACP chapter, labor unions and community organizations. It criticized the officers' bill of rights as granting special rights to police officers than no other citizen or public employee receives — establishing a double standard that they argued erodes public trust. They said the 10-day rule should be eliminated. They also want civilians to help investigate complaints against officers so that it's not just law enforcement evaluating each other.

In a joint letter to the panel, the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriffs' Association advocated for less drastic changes but said they back reducing the 10-day period to five days.

"We want the people we serve to have faith in us, both in practice and perception, and we are open to making changes to further that effort," their letter said.

The law enforcement groups also wrote that they wanted greater flexibility to fire officers convicted of serious misdemeanor offenses, such as second-degree assault, stalking or reckless endangerment.

And they advocated for more serious sanctions when the facts of a disciplinary matter are not in dispute. Current law calls for up to a three-day suspension and a $150 fine; the law enforcement groups suggested a maximum five-day suspension and a $1,000 fine.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said he supports the stance of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and will be vocally backing that position when the issue comes up in Annapolis.

"It's important that we all stand together and support the Maryland chiefs' recommendations," he said, referring to all of the heads of police departments in the state. "I've spoken to a number of my peers, and it's my expectation that they'll be voicing similar support."

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Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat and the panel's other co-chair, said she expects debate before members settle on exactly what they want to recommend to the legislature. But she said there was certainly consensus where "everybody wants more diversity training" for officers and to reduce the 10-day rule by at least half.

The General Assembly will convene for its 90-day session on Jan. 13, two days after the panel meets to discuss final recommendations.

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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