Maryland lawmakers have described the sweeping, four-part package of policing legislation they passed as the most consequential law enforcement reforms in a half-century.
Passed after months of hard-fought debate and tough negotiations, the package of bills — dubbed the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 — was framed by leaders in the General Assembly as a response to entrenched distrust of police in communities and decades of activism demanding greater transparency and accountability for law enforcement.
“Only when we restore trust and integrity are we going to then be able to have a safer state,” said Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who has pressed for policing legislation for years and sponsored several key pieces of the package.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a second-term Republican, vetoed most of the bills Friday evening, but the legislature moved swiftly to override him. The House of Delegates voted within two hours to override one veto, and, by Saturday afternoon, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly had voted to override the vetoes.
Here’s a look at what’s inside the wide-ranging package:
New disciplinary process
Among the legislation’s marquee pieces is an overhaul of the process that handles civilian complaints and allegations of misconduct or rules infractions by officers. New all-civilian committees — rather than trial boards of fellow officers — will consider evidence and decide whether officers should be disciplined.
Chiefs or sheriffs will still levy punishment but will be required to follow a matrix of minimum punishments for different types of violations or misconduct. Officers unhappy with the sanctions can appeal their cases to a trial board made up of a civilian, a fellow officer and an active or retired judge.
All county-level law enforcement agencies in Maryland will have to adopt body cameras by July 2025.
And four of the biggest departments in the state that haven’t yet — the Maryland State Police, county police in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, and the Harford County Sheriff’s Office — must do so by 2023.
A task force will recommend ways to extend the requirement to use body cameras to smaller police departments, as well.
Use of force
The act will set a new statewide standard for when officers can use force — and new criminal penalties of up to 10 years in prison for serious violations.
Any force must be “necessary and proportional to prevent an imminent threat of physical injury” or achieve “a legitimate law enforcement objective.”
That provision is among the package’s most controversial. Advocates argued it’s essential to curbing brutality and bringing accountability to officers who currently have too much leeway to use force. Republican lawmakers argued it’s vague and unfair to officers forced to make split-second decisions in dangerous situations.
Investigations of police killings
A newly created unit within the Maryland attorney general’s office will investigate all police killings of civilians. Most agencies, including the Baltimore Police Department, currently investigate such cases themselves.
Local state’s attorneys will still decide whether to clear officers or bring criminal charges.
Surplus military gear
The package puts new limits on what kinds of surplus gear Maryland law enforcement agencies in Maryland can obtain from the U.S. Department of Defense.
Among the equipment that will now be off-limits: grenade launchers, explosives, silencers, and aircraft, drones or vehicles outfitted with offensive weapons.
Public access to records
The public will be allowed to request disciplinary records and internal affairs complaints lodged against officers. Departments will still be able to withhold records that are part of active investigations, redact personal details and keep witness information secret.
The change — sponsored by Carter and called Anton’s Law after Anton Black, a 19-year-old Black man who died in 2018 in police custody in Caroline County — will offer a public view of records long kept confidential.
Even complaints deemed unfounded by internal affairs investigators will be subject to release, something proponents deemed a vital dose of transparency into a secretive accountability process. That alarmed and angered police unions and some lawmakers, who feared officers’ reputations could be unfairly damaged.
Police will only be able to obtain a so-called “no-knock” search warrant — which allows officers to burst into a home unannounced — if they can demonstrate that knocking would endanger lives.
And no-knock warrants will largely be limited to daytime hours: The package would require police to carry them out between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., except in emergencies.
Scholarships for future officers
A scholarship fund will cover 50% of college tuition and fees for Maryland residents who agree to spend at least five years after graduation working as an officer in the state.
Current officers will also qualify, as long as they continue working in law enforcement after completing their degrees.
Higher payouts in lawsuits
The package more than doubles the amount of money plaintiffs can win in lawsuits over police misconduct filed in Maryland state courts, raising the cap from $400,000 to $890,000. It doesn’t affect lawsuits against police in federal court, where there are no limits on potential judgments.
So, what didn’t make it?
Maryland Policy & Politics
Plenty of proposals — some seriously considered by the General Assembly, some not — didn’t end up in the final Police Accountability Act.
Nothing in the bills would slash funding for law enforcement.
Also, delegates overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to remove resource officers from schools — a demand of some activists.
A contentious provision that would have stripped pensions from officers convicted of felonies or certain lesser crimes, including perjury or theft, passed both chambers. But it was cut from the bill after a number of mostly Republican senators called it mean-spirited and unfair to officers’ families.
Sen. Charles Sydnor Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the body-camera provisions, originally sought to make it easier for defense attorneys to throw out testimony from officers who intentionally misused their body cameras or stopped recording. That was cut, too.
Also lost was a proposal to give the Office of the State Prosecutor authority to review deaths at the hands of police and potentially pursue criminal charges, if county prosecutors had decided not to. That provision passed the Senate, but the House of Delegates scrapped it in favor of having the attorney general’s office investigate but leaving the decision on charging in the hands of local prosecutors.
Baltimore Sun reporters Alex Mann and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.