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Officer Alfie G. Acol, with the Laurel Police Department, seen here at his squad car with his AXON Flex, head mounted-point of view video recording system. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Police accountability has its day in Annapolis

ANNAPOLIS — Before a House of Delegates committee hearing last week, about 70 people gathered by the State House to remember the names of people who died while interacting with law enforcement officers: Archie Elliott III, 1995. Gary Hopkins Jr., 1999. Dale Graham, 2008. Tyrone West, 2013.

All died during interactions with officers in Maryland under disputed circumstances.

The men’s family members support bills under consideration that would impose stricter review processes and penalties for officers who abuse their power. But police officials say existing policies are sufficient, and changes would put officers at risk.

The 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., have sparked a nationwide discussion of police brutality and interactions with people of color, but the family members gathered on Lawyers’ Mall wanted to raise awareness of instances of alleged police misconduct in the state.

“This is not a new issue. This is an ongoing issue,” said Marion Gray-Hopkins, Gary Hopkins’ mother, standing with other parents near a banner with her son’s name that read: “I’m Gone But Let The Fight For Justice Continue.”

The protesters were gathered in support of a slate of bills intended to hold police accountable for alleged misconduct. Provisions on the table include amendments to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights; a stronger role for civilian review boards; harsher punishments for officers’ misbehavior; and the use of body cameras to record officer-citizen interactions.

Delegate Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, sponsored eight law enforcement bills scheduled for the Thursday hearing.

One of them, HB968, would allow civilian membership on hearing boards that review alleged police misconduct and would allow a hearing board to approve or overturn a disciplinary decision. It would also eliminate a clause that gives an accused officer 10 days before he or she can be interrogated; critics of that policy say it allows officers to create alibis and firm up their cases.

But law enforcement officials said the bills could strip officers of crucial protections.

“We have some really great concerns over” some of the proposals, said Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin, a member of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association and the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association. “We want to make sure that not only the officers and deputy sheriffs in Maryland continue to have their due process in case some of them get in trouble. But we want to also make sure that the chiefs and sheriffs have their authority to make very good decisions as far as discipline goes.”

On the topic of body cameras, Popkin said the chiefs and sheriffs favor their use, but the bills before the committee are too restrictive as to when cameras can be used. Other officials, however, cited privacy concerns, speaking about the “voyeuristic” nature of cameras and the potential for embarrassing videos to surface on YouTube.

Also present was Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, D, who spoke about two bills that Delegate Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore, introduced on her administration’s behalf.

One, HB363, would create a felony charge of misconduct in office, which would apply to officers who commit any crime that draws a maximum penalty of more than one year in prison. The new felony would carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. The other, HB365, would order the state attorney general to prosecute all cases of felonies allegedly committed in the line of duty.