A group of state lawmakers endorsed repealing the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, a tentative first step toward jettisoning a law that many believe protects police officers from being held accountable for bad acts.
The recommendation is one of several made Thursday by a House of Delegates work group and could form the basis of legislation that the General Assembly would consider when lawmakers return in January to Annapolis.
Some lawmakers and activists have honed in on the law for years as problematic, but efforts to repeal it have fallen short.
Thursday’s move appeared to be the first time a group of Maryland lawmakers endorsed repealing the law. The law spells out the disciplinary process for police, including affording officers accused of misconduct a five-day window before they must speak with investigators.
Del. Gabriel Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat, noted that Maryland was the first state to pass such a law for police officers, in 1974. Repealing it here could have a “ripple effect” on other states, he said.
“Maryland provided the blueprint to America on how to protect corrupt and racist cops by passing the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights and providing these undue and unnecessary protections for law enforcement officers that ordinary citizens do not have,” he said.
The vote was split, with nine Democrats voting in favor of repealing the law and four Republicans and one Democrat opposed.
Some of those opposed said they preferred to rework the existing law, or create one to take its place. Del. Michael Jackson, a Democrat who is a former Prince George’s County sheriff, said he thought it would be better to examine the various provisions within the law.
“There are segments to this body of work that I think are worth discussing,” he said.
The work group’s recommendation comes as police accountability reforms have gained newfound support as more Marylanders have become aware of inequitable treatment of minorities by law enforcement.
The bipartisan House of Delegates work group was appointed by Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, who charged it with diving into how to change how police do their jobs, and how officers are held accountable for disregarding rules and procedures.
The work group’s other recommendations include:
Requiring an independent investigation of cases in which officers have shot people or otherwise killed or seriously injured individuals. It did not specify which agency should conduct investigations.
Creating a standard for types of force that are not allowed to be used by police, including addressing chokeholds and putting handcuffed individuals facedown.
Creating penalties for officers who violate the use-of-force law, including up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Requiring the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission to maintain a database of officers fired for use-of-force violations.
Establishing that officers have a duty to intervene when a colleague is using inappropriate force.
Limiting when officers can seek “no-knock” warrants, so they can only ask for them when there is a threat to the safety of officers or individuals.
Requiring police departments to create “early warning systems” to identify problematic officers and involving more civilians in police trial boards that review disciplinary cases.
At a meeting last week, work group members made other recommendations including: requiring body cameras for officers by 2025, mandating more fitness and psychological exams for officers, requiring implicit bias training, banning police unions from negotiating disciplinary measures and returning control of the Baltimore Police Department from the state to the city.
Some members expressed concern that some topics were not discussed, such as changing the Maryland Public Information Act, which allows police to shield disciplinary records from public scrutiny. Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, the work group’s chair, said lawmakers are free to introduce any bills on police or public information on their own.
“I’m sure we will see a wide breadth of policing issues when we return for the 2021 legislative session,” said Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat.
The state Senate also is looking at changes to policing. The Judicial Proceedings Committee held hearings on more than a dozen proposals last month.
The focus on policing issues this summer and fall signals that leaders of the Democratic-majority General Assembly are keenly interested in passing police reform during the 2021 session.
A recent Goucher College Poll of Marylanders found strong support for many of the reforms under consideration. Among the poll’s findings were 85% support for independent investigations and prosecutions of police misconduct and 79% support for creating a statewide use-of-force standard.
A coalition of dozens of civil rights and progressive groups has criticized the General Assembly’s approach to policing legislation, calling it a “leadership-centric style of policymaking” that hinders progress.
The Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability suggested that instead of Democratic leaders “offering a big leadership bill," they should follow the lead of lower-ranking legislators who have been “champions” for improving policing. The coalition noted past attempts at changes “have been met with tremendous resistance from elected leaders."
Even so, some of the coalition’s priorities were endorsed by the work group, including repealing the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights.
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