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Advocates concerned law enforcement task force outcome is predetermined

ANNAPOLIS — Advocates pushing for changes in a law that protects police officers during administrative investigations of wrongdoing expressed concern Monday over a process they feel excludes the public and is building toward a predetermined outcome.

Representatives of groups including the NAACP and the ACLU Maryland expressed their concerns and made demands for changes they would like to see made to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights just moments before a work group comprised solely of legislators was scheduled to meet to review the law. Those advocates said that the hearing, held during the day far from Baltimore, favored the voices of police officers and their unions over the public.

“A lot of the legislators have deep ties to law enforcement,” said Rion Dennis, political action co-chairman for the Maryland NAACP. “We feel that they’re point of view has been made. ”

Those same advocates called on legislators to recommend changes to the law that was first enacted in 1974.

Among those changes include elimination of what some say is a “10-day cooling off period” which hinders investigations of police wrongdoing and use of excessive force by allowing officers to put off departmental investigators for 10 days while they retain counsel. The groups also want victims of alleged police brutality to have more than 90 days to file a complaint.

Additionally, those advocates say they want to find a way to include civilians in the police review process as well as eliminate the ability of unions to negotiate through contracts restrictions on penalties that can be imposed by police chiefs such as those in Baltimore and Montgomery counties where trial board recommendations are considered final and the respective chiefs may only reduce recommended penalties and cannot increase them.

“What we cannot see through this work group is a repeat of the General Assembly process where we saw incredibly frustrating legislative inertia on the issue of police reforms,” said Toni Holness, a lawyer and public policy associate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “It is unacceptable and we are demanding that these reforms be proposed by the work group, take up by the General Assembly, pass by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor.”

Legislators leading the work group, such as Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, D-Baltimore City and co-chair of the panel, said ideas that the panel has already come to predetermined conclusions is misplaced.

“Let me also make it very clear that we’ve drawn no conclusions at this stage of the game and in fact what we’ve done is listen, ascertain information, as we will continue to do today, and talk about the need perhaps for what we need to do in the future,” Pugh said. “We’ve drawn no conclusion yet.”

Pugh said hearing Monday was one of a series. The last one included nearly four hours of testimony from various community groups from across the state including the NAACP.

Maryland was the first to enact such police protections in 1974 following a period of civil unrest in the late 1960s that gave rise to a growth in police unions and complaints against officers for use of force, according to Karen J. Kruger, an attorney for the Maryland Chiefs of Police and Maryland Sheriff’s Associations.

Kruger said the two associations are currently working on a set of proposals to change the law.

Many of those changes would be with an eye toward modernizing the law to include digital video recordings of interviews with officers and adding or subtracting tests based on new technologies and science that are among a list in the law as well as making it easier for police chiefs to have the final say in managing personnel in their respective departments.

A draft of those changes could be completed within 30 days, but Kruger said the two associations may be willing to work with other outside groups.

“We realize that the law is 40 years old and anything 40 years old should be looked at again,” Kruger said. “Some of it is outdated.”