Maryland faces a “unique moment” to reform policing practices, say legislative leaders who believe the state came up short in enacting changes following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
“For years, we’ve had a well-defined problem. What we’ve lacked is the political will,” said Sen. William C. Smith Jr., chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “It’s a unique moment where we have the triad — well-defined problems, well-defined solutions and the political will.”
Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, was interviewed as his committee prepared for hearings next month on police reform and as national attention continued to focus on law enforcement practices following the arrest of George Floyd, a Black man who died on Memorial Day in Minneapolis after an officer pinned him with a knee on his neck.
On Monday, an organization called Campaign Zero said it was beginning an effort to enhance police accountability by educating the public about how union contracts “enable and protect bad police behavior.”
The group said it has reviewed hundreds of contracts and law enforcement officers’ bills of rights from Maryland and other states and found “common problems that are perpetuating violence.”
The group identified a number of ways it says police union contracts can prevent accountability. According to the organization’s website, these include “arbitrary” deadlines to file misconduct complaints; restrictions that bar investigators from questioning police officers immediately after an incident; periodic erasures of misconduct records; providing officers information unavailable to civilians; and allowing arbitrators who aren’t “accountable to the public” to reduce officers’ punishments.
“The time is now to hold police accountable,” said the organization, which includes activists DeRay Mckesson and Sam Sinyangwe, among others.
[ What comes next for Baltimore? These 6 Black leaders share their hopes for the future. ]
The group created online databases of police contracts and other documents for the 100 largest U.S. cities. There is also a database of candidates and elected officials from around the country who have received money from officer-funded political action committees.
Smith said Campaign Zero’s work was helpful “and I’m very supportive of it.”
He said his committee’s focus will include an examination of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (or LEOBR), designed to ensure police officers’ rights to due process across Maryland and protect them from unnecessary investigation or prosecution.
Democratic State Sen. Jill P. Carter of Baltimore, a member of the committee, favors repealing LEOBR as part of an effort to strengthen disciplinary protocols and make police procedures more transparent.
“We’ve made zero progress since Freddie Gray,” Carter said of the Black man who died of a spinal cord injury suffered in a Baltimore police van. “The difference is there is a genuine will on the part of legislative leaders this time.”
[ Baltimore activists are still protesting police brutality, but they’ve refined their strategy to minimize violence ]
Carter has sponsored law enforcement-related bills for years, only to see them often fail or pass in watered-down versions.
In 2017, Baltimore entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department after a federal investigation found officers routinely violated residents’ rights. The investigation was prompted by the fatal arrest of Gray, whose death sparked unrest and calls for police reform in Baltimore.
The consent decree, still in effect, called for significant new restrictions on officers, including limits on when and how they can engage people suspected of criminal activity. It orders more training for officers in de-escalation tactics and interactions with young people.
In 2019, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison outlined a new use-of-force policy emphasizing training, real-life scenarios and other actions to quell situations before they escalate.
“In Baltimore, use of force is something we’re leading on because of the consent decree, but we’re talking about the rest of the state,” said City Council President Brandon Scott, the winner of June’s Democratic mayoral primary.
Scott said he favors a number of changes, including making it easier for the police department to fire officers accused of crimes. Harrison has lamented that, had Floyd’s death occurred in Maryland, LEOBR would have prevented him from firing the officers involved, as the Minneapolis chief did.
That is also a goal of Smith’s in the next General Assembly session, scheduled to start in January.
“I’m very excited,” Scott said. “This is the beginning of building a new, improved system. The important thing is we don’t squander this opportunity.”
Baltimore County Council has been considering changes, as well. However, the council was unable to agree earlier this month on a measure that included banning police use of chokeholds.
In a June letter to constituents and fellow lawmakers, Smith proposed making police disciplinary records public, ending the purchase of military equipment for officers, eliminating some caps on lawsuit damages and creating a unit within the state attorney general’s office to prosecute cases when a police officer injures or kills a civilian.
Under the title of the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, Smith said he and colleagues would craft a number of bills and that “every bill would rise and fall on its own merits.”
A draft document from Smith about the legislation lists eight areas of focus: disclosure of records, use of force, police discipline, independent investigations, demilitarization, liability caps, training, and duty to intervene. “Duty to intervene” refers to Smith’s effort to clearly establish an officer’s responsibility to step in to prohibit excessive force by a colleague.
“Everyone from the ACLU to the [Fraternal Order of Police] has to be at the table, and everyone in between,” Smith said. “The community members affected. The chiefs and sheriffs. The prosecutors. Rank-and-file officers. Academics. Activists.”
Neither Baltimore Police spokespersons nor Michael Mancuso, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3 in Baltimore, responded to requests for comment.
In the House of Delegates, Speaker Adrienne A. Jones set up a bipartisan task force in June to review issues of policing, with the goal of coming up with proposals for the next legislative session. Jones is a Democrat representing Baltimore County.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Through an aide, Jones did not respond to a question on whether she favored repealing or overhauling LEOBR. The speaker is receiving regular updates from task force members “and eagerly awaits their recommendations,” said Alexandra Hughes, her chief of staff.
The task force heard hours of testimony earlier this month in favor of amending or repealing LEOBR.
Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, was not available to comment, an aide said.
Last week, Michael Davey, attorney for the Baltimore FOP lodge, said changing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights would harm officers and their right to due process.
“The LEOBR is not the issue in Baltimore,” Davey wrote to a state commission. “The true problem is the mismanagement and incompetency of the BPD to follow the law like every other law enforcement agency in the state of Maryland,” said his letter to the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing, which the General Assembly created to look into widespread corruption by the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force. Twelve such officers have been convicted in federal court.
Smith was cautious when discussing the possible repeal of the LEOBR.
“If you’re proponent of repeal, then you have to think critically about what you’re going to replace it with,” he said. “You can work within the current statute or replace it with something different. You need to be focused keenly on what comes after.”