Before the Maryland Senate began to debate eight police reform bills on Tuesday’s agenda, Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Democrat from Baltimore City, relayed an email which he and House Speaker Adrienne Jones received this week.
Ferguson said the email came from a person outside their districts about recommendations on proposed legislation. He read the email on the Senate floor.
“I sent you an email about key thoughts and recommendations on issues that are being addressed in this legislation session and never so much as got an acknowledgment of or thanks for my input,” the email said. “Since you did not answer me, I guess I will just share my recommendations and concerns with some of your family members in hopes they can relay that message to you.”
Ferguson said different groups protested outside the homes of legislators.
“We can disagree but the fundamental principle of democracy is that we disagree in an agreeable way,” he said. “We don’t threaten and intimidate members’ families. This is a red line.”
He continued: “We know that we’re going to get some tough criticism. We’re going to get yelled at sometimes. That’s part of the job description. But our families don’t sign up for that. Family is off-limits.”
After that message, the senators held a spirited debate for more than 90 minutes on a bill sought to restructure the state’s public information act for people to review police records. The legislation has been dubbed “Anton’s Law” in honor of Anton Black, 19, who died while in police custody in September 2018 on the Eastern Shore.
Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City) who sponsored the legislation, said it would provide transparency to assess how law enforcement agencies can adequately police itself. In addition, it would ascertain if police officers who receive complaints about misconduct can be dismissed without any forms of discipline.
In the case of Black, his family has struggled to receive information on his case. One of the officers involved in the case received nearly 30 use-of-force complaints, the majority occurring in Delaware.
“The old ways of keeping these records secret has not served us,” Carter said Tuesday.
But some senators fear that unsubstantiated complaints revealed publicly may harm officers’ reputations and their families.
Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-District 24) of Landover said some Black state troopers with whom she’s working remain concerned that the bill could negatively affect possible promotions or “career advancements” in an agency.
“This would not carry in my profession,” Benson, a retired educator, said about making unsubstantiated complaints public. “That information does not become public because it doesn’t have any merit.”
Sen. Pam Beidle (D-Anne Arundel County) offered an amendment to remove unsubstantiated claims from public inspection when it’s determined “by clear and convincing evidence that the infraction did not occur.”
Sen. Robert Cassilly (R-Harford County) who supported the amendment, said Carter’s legislation could affect the future of law enforcement.
“We are going to take this profession into the dumps,” he said.
The amendment failed, but only by a 26-21 vote.
Sen. Charles Sydnor, who represents parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore County, asked about portions of the bill’s intent.
“Does this bill open up the floodgate for everyone to see everything that’s happening in the police department?” Sydnor said to Carter.
“No,” she replied. “This bill does not automatically disclose every single complaint that has been made whether sustained or [not sustained.] It’s just an individual case-by-case basis.”
The Senate held another session Tuesday evening after The Informer press time.