Maryland lawmakers passed sweeping police reform. Now, how to implement it?

Baltimore’s police commissioner is weighing how much sooner he can fire troublesome cops. For the first time, Maryland’s attorney general is preparing to investigate killings by police. And an Eastern Shore chief has to find a way to protect and store body-camera footage on a shoestring budget.

Across Maryland, police departments, attorneys and advocacy groups are unpacking the raft of police reform measures state lawmakers passed last weekend by overriding vetoes by Gov. Larry Hogan. The Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 ushers in sweeping changes to law enforcement from big, urban departments to small, rural forces.

“This is a huge moment,” said Bowie Police Chief John Nesky, president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association Inc. “We’ve never seen anything that looks like this. That’s not to say change is a bad thing, but it has to be operational.”

With the laws passed, departments must determine how to pay for and implement them. For example, Maryland State Police officials have to figure out how to equip their nearly 1,500 troopers with body cameras within two years, an undertaking estimated to cost more than $5 million for cameras and annual maintenance.

Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford counties must outfit hundreds of officers with cameras, too. Howard County Police figure they have to hire 10 people to manage all the footage. And police aren’t the only ones affected.

Advocates have long sought to access to police personnel files. They’re looking to Oct. 1 when a measure known as Anton’s Law begins to open up officers’ disciplinary records. At that point, the public may 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 information and keep witnesses secret.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys saw the state cap on damages from police misconduct lawsuits more than doubled, from $400,000 to $890,000.

“What is a person’s life worth?” said Baltimore attorney Kenneth Ravenell, who has represented the families of people killed by police. “By doubling the amount, it allows family members, young children left behind, to have some sort of real reward when they lose a loved one.”

One of the most notable changes relates to public involvement in disciplining officers. All county and Baltimore City governments must find volunteers to sit on new police disciplinary boards. The new law requires a panel of five civilians to hear cases of police misconduct and bring administrative charges against officers.

The change reflects the efforts by lawmakers to give civilians some authority — albeit not enough, advocates say — over how officers are disciplined. And that’s frustrated some police chiefs.

“It is more likely that we would find a unicorn, than a civilian, who has police expertise and no relationship to law enforcement,” Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler, said in a recent recorded message posted to Facebook.

Chiefs and sheriffs will still levy the punishment, but they must meet or exceed discipline standards set by the state, similar to mandatory minimum penalties.

The new legislation also requires Baltimore City and each county to form a police accountability board, which will review outcomes of disciplinary matters considered by charging committees, and require regular reports of the disciplinary process and make policy recommendations.

Karen J. Kruger, the chief counsel for the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said the new officer disciplinary rules are “heavily administrative and more cumbersome than the old process, and time will tell if we will even be able to implement it.”

She believes finding volunteers to sit on the administrative charging committees won’t be easy.

“That’s going to be a huge challenge to find people committed for the long haul,” Kruger said. “If these roles can’t be filled, then we can’t have any police discipline. Then we are totally handicapped.”

In addition, a new independent unit within the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, with assistance from state police, will investigate deaths caused by police officers.

Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for the office, said new positions still need to be funded. According to a Letter of Information provided to legislators in February, the office estimated the need for a team of between six and eight attorneys to be assigned no more than six cases a year. The letter notes inconsistent data on the number of police use of force incidents that results in serious injury, but cites 49 instances in 2019 when officer contact resulted in serious injury or death of the officer or person, according to data provided by the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission.

Baltimore Police have also yet to say how moving use of force investigations outside the agency and other legislation will affect the federal consent decree that the department has been under since 2017.

“We’re taking a close look at it now. We hope to reach those conclusions in the next couple of days,” said Seth Rosenthal, part of the monitoring team helping implement the decree.

The threshold for use of force has also changed. A new legal definition permits officers to use force only when found “necessary and proportional to prevent an imminent threat of physical injury” or achieve “a legitimate law enforcement objective.” An officer who intentionally uses excessive force that results in death or serious physical injury could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and sentenced to prison for up to 10 years.

Still, plenty of people say the reform measures didn’t go far enough. Lawmakers repealed the controversial Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, but their replacement system to discipline officers “missed the mark,” wrote a coalition of 90 advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Maryland and public defenders’ union.

Dayvon Love, the policy director for the Baltimore advocacy group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, wanted the civilian charging committees to have full authority to dole out punishments to guilty officers. Instead, the committee recommends punishment for police chiefs to hand down.

“The demand was around community control and community oversight,” he said. “It is central to actually have the greatest deterrence against police violence.”

Clyde Boatwright, president of the statewide Fraternal Order of Police, said some reforms might discourage new police recruits or drive veterans to leave the profession at a time when many agencies are struggling to fill their ranks.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison had testified in favor of reforms, and supported more power for police chiefs to address cops accused of wrongdoing, including to fire officers before they are charged criminally if there is “clear, irrefutable evidence,” or if termination is in the agency and the public’s best interest.

After George Floyd’s death at the hands of police last year in Minneapolis, Harrison said that under LEOBR, he would not have been able to fire the four officers involved in Floyd’s arrest, as the Minneapolis chief did.

The new law does not give him that power either. It does let him and other chiefs fire officers convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors, including any crime committed on duty, and does not require agencies to complete administrative investigations.

The legislation does not go into effect until July 2022, but county-level law enforcement agencies have until July 2025 to implement body-camera programs.

On the Eastern Shore, Chief Bill Dempsey doesn’t know what all these changes will mean for the three-person Rock Hall Police. They banned chokeholds after Floyd’s last year, he said. And they will try and find the money for body cameras, but the full scope of the changes is overwhelming.

After 45 years in law enforcement, Dempsey is asking himself if it’s time to retire.

“I’ll certainly comply with the law,” he said, “I’m just not sure how to wrap my head around all of it.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Bryn Stole contributed to this article.