Activists, police agree Maryland Democrats' bill to improve relations won't work

During a rally to increase police accountability in Annapolis, 10 children were draped in CAUTION tape. Members of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee held hearings on police reform bills Tuesday.

Children came draped in crime scene tape. Police chiefs arrived in full dress uniforms. Baltimore's mayor and one of the officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray both showed up to watch. HBO even sent a recording crew.

Hundreds of people arrived in Annapolis Tuesday to weigh in on a topic that has dominated local and national headlines for more than a year: How can a government repair the broken trust between police officers and the African-American communities they police?


As the Maryland General Assembly began debate Tuesday on the first of dozens of bills to address that gulf, hours of hearings and rallies revealed few agree on the solutions.

Mothers of people killed in police encounters begged for laws even stronger than those proposed by a legislative task force. Activists said the solutions offered by lawmakers would not ensure that cops found guilty of wrongdoing faced proper consequences, or grant the public enough oversight.


Police union officials said an omnibus "police accountability" bill, which lawmakers spent months crafting, would roll back rights that officers deserve for putting their lives on the line, while doing little to address the underlying issue.

"How do you legislate trust?" asked Vince Canales, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police.

The proposal was drafted from 23 recommendations issued in January by a task force convened after Gray died from injuries suffered in police custody.

The hours-long debate before the House of Delegates' Judiciary Committee frustrated some lawmakers, who spent months trying to come up with ideas after Gray's death, which sparked a riot and weeks of protest.

"There's no silver bullet, but to act in good faith is paramount," said Del. C.T. Wilson, a former prosecutor and Charles County Democrat who was part of the task force that developed the bill.

"Everyone we heard from comes up here and says they don't like it because they didn't get everything they want," said Wilson, standing in the back of the hearing room, shaking his head.

The criticism came from police chiefs, sheriffs, union representatives, activists and victims of police brutality.

Dayvon Love, co-founder of the black empowerment group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, signed up to testify against the bill, saying that supporting it would allow lawmakers to feel that they addressed the issues of police brutality and accountability without substantively changing the power dynamic that led to protests in Baltimore.


For that reason, he said, "this bill would do more harm than good."

The bill proposed by Democratic leaders would grant more rights to victims of police brutality and take away some rights granted to police officers during the disciplinary process.

It would create a unified training system for police, allow the public to watch disciplinary board hearings and extend how long the public has to file police brutality complaints. It would also implement a host of other changes affecting training, transparency and investigations into police-involved incidents.

Democrats argued that the changes would dramatically open up what has been a largely secret police disciplinary process.

The biggest points of contention among lawmakers Tuesday were the extent to which the public should be involved in disciplining officers and how many rights should be granted to police accused of wrongdoing.

Committee members questioned whether it was necessary to give officers periodic psychological evaluations and wondered if changes that would cost the state more than $6 million a year would improve things.


Del. John Cluster, a retired police officer and Republican from Baltimore County, said it didn't make sense to require a civilian to sit on a disciplinary board for police.

"Policing is a unique thing," Cluster said.

Representatives from the state's more rural areas questioned whether a statewide solution was necessary when most of the problems seemed to be in Baltimore.

Republican Del. Deborah C. Rey of St. Mary's County said that if her community didn't like how the local sheriff ran the department, it could "fire him in the next election."

Activists were particularly critical of a provision that would create a different, three-member disciplinary board to oversee police brutality complaints and allow the accused officer to choose two of the panels' members. Activists likened that to allowing cops to stack the jury with family members. Police chiefs said giving cops that veto power would allow them to stonewall progress in brutality cases.

David Rocah, a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union, said other provisions that would limit how and when police brutality complaints could be filed made "no sense." Representatives from police agencies, meanwhile, suggested that such complaints be filed within 180 days, not the one year proposed by lawmakers.


The chasm between police and activists was most prominently on display when Frank Boston III, lobbyist for the police union, opened his remarks by saying: "There is no problem."

While Boston later clarified his position to mean there's no problem with the rights currently afforded officers, Del. Carlo Sanchez of Prince George's County, a Democrat, pointed out the damage was done.

"There's a perception that there is a problem, and your statement that 'there is no problem' exacerbates that," Sanchez said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats, are pushing the legislation, and Busch testified Tuesday that it would "create a better atmosphere, if you will, between the community and law enforcement."

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has not taken a position on the bill, but several agencies he oversees submitted testimony against it, including the Maryland State Police, Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Department of Budget and Management, and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer said the governor "certainly supports law enforcement across the state and believes that they deserve appropriate levels of protection," referring to special rights given officers under the now-controversial Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.


Activists who unsuccessfully lobbied the legislature for changes to that law last year chided lawmakers for their inaction.

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"I told you all we were in state of emergency," said Tawanda Jones, who has been holding protests since her brother, Tyrone West, died in a police encounter after a 2013 traffic stop in Northwest Baltimore.

"We were disrespected, and we were told to take our carnage back to Baltimore. How many more bodies?" she asked. "Please, at what point are you going to take us seriously?"

In the hallway outside of the committee hearing room, one of the officers charged in Gray's death stood quietly while lawmakers heard testimony on more than two dozen policing bills spawned largely by that case.

Officer William G. Porter, whose trial ended with a hung jury last year, was dressed in a dark suit and declined to comment except to say, "I'm here to witness democracy, much like yourself."

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.