ANNAPOLIS – Maryland lawmakers passed police reform legislation, against the governor’s objections, that they claim is the best way, in attempts that date back 50 years, to improve law enforcement accountability and transparency.
The package includes a new statewide use-of-force standard, allows the public to review certain police records that deal with police misconduct and a new disciplinary process that features civilian committees, versus trial boards with fellow officers, to assess and decide the discipline of officers.
It also repeals a police officers’ Bill of Rights that established due process for officers accused of wrongdoing. The action makes Maryland the first state in the nation to scrub the measure.
“I knew there were a lot of people all across the state looking at what we were going to do because this is just so important for so many communities, especially when you talk about Black and brown communities,” said Del. Nicole A. Williams (D-District 22) of Greenbelt, who serves on the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee that worked on the police legislation.
“One of my good friends is a Capitol Hill Police Officer. I’m not anti-police. There are groups of people who feel law enforcement isn’t there to protect them. That’s why these police reforms in Maryland are needed.”
The legislature with an overwhelming Democratic majority outnumbers Republicans by about a 2 to 1 ratio, enabling lawmakers to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes on Saturday, April 10.
“These bills would undermine the goal that I believe we share of building transparent, accountable and effective law enforcement institutions and instead further erode police morale, community relations and public confidence,” Hogan, a Republican, wrote in a letter Friday, April 9.
Maryland lawmakers formed work groups last summer after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer that sparked nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson made police reform a major priority in this year’s 90-day session.
Advocates and family members with loved ones killed by police held a rally in March in front of the State House in Annapolis demanding stronger police measures.
A few lawmakers posted comments last week on social media toward their colleagues who didn’t support police reform.
Ferguson said police reform legislation has been the “hardest and most challenging and most emotional” in his 11 years as a lawmaker.
“If we don’t get this right, nothing else matters, he said. “This is the product of years and decades of challenges. We are taking a step to create greater public safety. With this framework, we can get there.”
Dawn Dalton of Upper Marlboro, whose son continues to feel the mental effects of an attack by Prince George’s County police in 2010, praised lawmakers for making police records more publicly available.
Although civilians are part of the process to recommend discipline for an officer’s alleged misconduct, a police chief can still make the final decision. The chief, however, cannot impose a discipline lower than the one recommended.
“I feel like the community should have more control of the process,” she said. “You still can’t make any decision and have citizens handpicked to serve on an\ oversight committee. This police reform was not a victory. The legislation could’ve been bolder.”
Here’s a summary of parts of the massive police reform package.
A new statute that requires a police officer to stop use of force when a person “is under the police officer’s control” and a person “no longer poses an imminent threat of physical injury or death to the police officer or to another person.” If officers don’t follow that and other regulations, they face up to 10 years in prison. That aspect of the law is scheduled to go into effect on June 1.
No-knock warrants can still be obtained by police, but except during emergencies, must be executed between 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Besides the owner of the residence, the warrant must list any additional occupants, including age, gender and whether anyone has “cognitive or physical disabilities or pets.”
According to the bill, it’s scheduled to take effect on Oct. 1.
All county police departments would be required to have body cameras by July 2025.
Four larger police agencies without a major body-camera program – Maryland State Police, Harford County Sheriff’s Office and the county police departments in Anne Arundel and Howard counties – must have them in use by 2023.
Prince George’s County allocated $2.6 million in the current budget to purchase body cameras for officers in the Police Department’s Bureau of Patrol. Those are the officers who mainly interact with the community.
Current police officers and those interested in the profession can obtain scholarships that would pay for 50 percent of the tuition and fees. The legislation requires the governor to budget $8.5 million in scholarships – $6 million for those pursuing a law enforcement profession and $2.5 million for current officers.
After graduation, a person must work for a law enforcement agency in Maryland for at least five years. This would take effect on July 1, 2022.
If these laws would’ve been implemented sooner, Blacks such as Anton Black, 19, would be alive today. One of the bills to allow a public request for disciplinary records and complaints against police officers is named after Black, who died in September 2018 in police custody in Greensboro on the Eastern Shore.
“His death is another example to take the necessary steps to bring about police reform,” said Hayes, whose younger brother works in law enforcement. “We can root out bad [police] officers who give good officers a bad name.”