When Maryland lawmakers reconvene for business in January, braced for a battle over police reform, they will have the results of a special work group of delegates to guide them.
A major recommendation approved last week by a 14-member work group from the House of Delegates would be repeal the controversial Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights statute. Maryland became the first state in the nation to establish it in 1974 that some believe gives police broad protections without accountability.
“Maryland provided the blueprint to America on how to protect corrupt and racist cops by passing the LEOBR and providing these undue and unnecessary protections for law enforcement officers that ordinary citizens do not have,” Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery County) said Thursday, Oct. 15.
Current and former law enforcement officials say it protects a police officer’s constitutional rights. In addition, those such as Del. Michael Jackson (D-District 27B), a former Prince George’s County sheriff, said it’s better to re-examine the current law.
“I think LEOBR can be broken down and we go through each piece of it,” said Jackson, who represents portions of Prince George’s and Calvert counties and is the only Democrat to vote with the four Republicans against the repeal. “There are segments to this body of work that are worth discussing.”
The group, created this summer by House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County), was spurred by the police-related death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, which spawned worldwide protests and some local officials to implement policy changes regarding police conduct.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee held three straight days of hearings last month over police reform measures including proposed legislation to require drug and alcohol testing of officers involved in a fatality and to reduce from five days to three the period during which a police officer can receive counsel and be interrogated for an alleged offense.
Such measures are among changes that could police agencies throughout the state.
Another proposal under review would punish with as much as five-year prison terms officers found guilty of violating use-of-force statutes and up to 10 years in prison for “knowing and willful” violations of police abuse laws.
Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, who represents portions of Baltimore and Harford counties, said the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police supported the county council passing language that allows officers some leeway to defend themselves but not the use of neck restraint, which she said happened to Floyd.
Her proposed measure to limit use of the tactic to instances in which an officer faces death or serious injury, it was defeated.
Del. Jason Buckel (R-Allegheny County) said the ban shouldn’t be managed by lawmakers.
“You cannot legislate a fight,” he said. “We are talking about someone who is physically resisting an officer’s arrest, lawful command, or is threatening the officer with violence or another individual. I don’t think we are doing anyone a service by saying the use of chokeholds is prohibited.”
Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles County) disagreed.
“We do legislate fights,” she said. “Anytime you cut off someone’s right to breath, that is deadly force.”
Other reforms recommended for legislative reform included requiring an officer to intervene when another officer uses excessive force, creation of an “early warning system” to identify officers whose “behavior is problematic” and limiting use of no-knock warrants “as a last resort” when the life of an officer or civilian are in danger.
“We have made some really strong recommendations that are going to move Maryland forward … particularly for minorities,” said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Montgomery County), who chaired the group.