Maryland General Assembly passes landmark policing legislation, sends package to Gov. Hogan

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Pamela Wood, The Baltimore Sun
·3 min read
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Maryland lawmakers passed a landmark police reform package aimed at delivering greater transparency and accountability on Wednesday, sending the wide-ranging legislation to Gov. Larry Hogan after months of intense debate.

The package of legislation would rewrite how officers accused of misconduct are disciplined, create a new statewide standard for when officers are allowed to use force, impose new potential criminal penalties — including up to 10 years in prison — for officers who use excessive force, and grant public access to some police disciplinary records.

Officers would need to jump through additional hoops to obtain no-knock search warrants or raid homes at night. Deaths of civilians at the hands of law enforcement anywhere in the state would be investigated by a newly created independent unit at the Maryland attorney general’s office. And officers convicted of certain crimes could be immediately fired and stripped of their law enforcement certification.

It’s unclear whether Hogan, a Republican, might veto part or all of the four-piece package. Law enforcement officials and Republican lawmakers loudly criticized certain provisions, including the prospect of making uncorroborated complaints against officers public, and argued some of the changes treat good officers unfairly and risk driving them out of the profession.

“This has clearly been a contentious process, but the governor will give thoughtful consideration to whatever bills come to his desk,” Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said Wednesday evening.

The sweeping package came after mass nationwide protests last summer against racism and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Activists in Maryland have campaigned for changes for decades, citing scores of deaths involving police over the years, including Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015 and Anton Black in Caroline County in 2018.

Top Democrats, including House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones of Baltimore County and Senate President Bill Ferguson of Baltimore City declared police reform a priority for the 2021 legislative session.

Leading Democrats said the final product, which emerged Wednesday from tense and high-stakes negotiations between the chambers, puts Maryland on a path toward curbing police misconduct and rebuilding broken trust in law enforcement.

Ferguson hailed the package as “the most comprehensive reforms to policing in generations.” Jones declared the bills “will have far-reaching, long-standing impacts on our communities and will improve the quality of life for more Marylanders for generations to come.”

Legislative leaders planned to present the bills Wednesday night to the governor.

“Policing is one of the most important public assets that we invest in, one of the most important things that we do. Every community, regardless of their ZIP code, regardless of their county … should have confidence in their police departments and in public safety,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “They should not be fearful.”

Clippinger said that, while not everyone agrees on the changes, it’s important to hold police to a high standard and that the bills “will do an enormous amount to help us feel that much more secure.”

Among the package’s central provisions is a repeal of Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a 1974 law. It enshrined in law a host of job protections for officers and rights for those who are accused of misconduct, something critics allege shields dirty officers from scrutiny or discipline. Maryland was the first state in the nation to pass such a law, which dozens of others have copied, and is now on the verge of becoming the first state to repeal it.

Complaints against officers would instead be weighed by a civilian administrative charging committee. Minimum punishments for each type of infraction or misconduct would be laid out by a disciplinary matrix and chiefs or sheriffs could only dole out tougher, but not lesser, sanctions. Officers convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors — including any crime committed on duty — could be fired immediately without a separate internal affairs investigation.

This article will be updated.