ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Senate on Thursday approved a massive police reform bill after spending roughly six hours over two nights debating the legislation.
The bill, which was approved on a 32-15 vote, would eliminate the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill Rights, a statute first approved in 1974 that law enforcement officials and supporters say allowed officers due process when handling disciplinary measures.
However, activists and opponents said the law known as LEOBR protected police officers accused of misconduct by allowing them to not only remain on the job but face only minor consequences.
The bill would allow civilians to play a role in the process of an independent investigation agency, an administrative charging committee and a trial board for an officer to challenge any discipline.
Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City) presented the most emotional testimony and summarized the years she pushed for police reform and a push to repeal LEOBR.
“It removes the veil of secrecy from the process,” Carter said of the bill.
“Police are … all of our public servants,” she said. “We have ceded to them over our own laws and policies … too much power with lack of accountability. While we’re here because many of us, and people all across the world, were moved by what happened to George Floyd, I just really want to remind us that was not unique. Maryland, our state, has tragedy after tragedy after tragedy.”
After the death of Floyd in Minneapolis and nationwide protests against racism and police brutality, House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson announced in the summer the formation of a police reform committee and that the topic would be a major priority in this year’s session.
The Senate approved the House version of the bill sponsored by Jones that would require police officers to receive an annual mental health evaluation and for new officers to complete implicit bias training and participate in “less lethal-force training.”
Any officer found guilty of a felony or perjury may lose part or all of their pension benefits.
Senate Minority Whip Michael Hough, a Republican who represents portions of Frederick and Carroll counties, said five police officers from Baltimore County resigned and another one in Frederick plans to leave its police force.
Hough said the Senate’s nine police reform bills approved last month, now under review in the House, “put out a good product in the first place. I think we came out with a balanced and fair approach.”
Although the Senate approved several amendments and some from Republicans, Hough and his Republican colleagues voted against the bill labeled the Police Reform and Accountability Act.
Sen. Katherine Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) asked Sen. William C. Smith Jr., who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee that assessed the legislation, whether the House version “is closer” to the Senate version passed by her chamber.
“It’s different, but we’ve gotten a little closer to what we had,” Smith said.
“I’m very troubled by the whole situation that we’re in right now,” said Klausmeier, the only Democrat to vote against the bill. “It’s just very, very difficult.”
With the 90-day session scheduled to end April 12, it remains unclear whether members from both chambers will have time to settle differences, especially since the House approved a 66-page bill and the Senate approved separate pieces of legislation.
Sen. Malcolm Augustine (D-District 47) of Cheverly offered heartfelt testimony to emphasize that police reform must be made now. As a Black man, he said, the police may see him “as a threat.”
“There’s a large group of us who are scared,” he said. “The system is broken for too many of us. That’s why the Police and Accountability Act is so important. It is there to help protect those who feel they have no protection.”