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Annapolis Summit: Criminal justice issues come to the fore

Police accountability, drug laws, incarceration alternatives on the agenda

Legislators in the upcoming General Assembly are expected to consider changes to several laws governing policing, including measures to amend the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

The expected legislation stems from the work of one legislative panel charged with examining policing issues in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, a west Baltimore man who suffered a fatal injury while in police custody.

That’s far from the only criminal justice matter likely to be on lawmakers’ agenda. By the time the session starts, other task forces and special panels are expected to propose measures to decriminalize drug paraphernalia, reduce recidivism, drive down incarceration rates, boost drug-treatment programs and amend the Maryland Public Information Act to define the public’s access to police body camera videos.

Del. Curt Anderson, co-chairman of the work group studying policing issues, said there appears to be a consensus among the 20-member panel on making changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

Key among those changes would be proposals to lower the number of days an officer has to retain legal counsel from 10 to possibly five or seven. Another would expand the time a civilian has to file a brutality complaint from the current 90 days to as much as a year and to lift a requirement that such complaints be notarized.

“I think these are all things we’re looking at,” said Anderson, D-Baltimore City.

Aftermath of Gray’s death

The legislative panel was formed in May by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. to look at public safety and policing practices in the wake of legislation introduced earlier this year after Gray’s death.

Other more contentious issues remain for the policing work group, such as how to address mandatory periodic health evaluations for police officers.

“I just don’t think we’re going to get some stuff done,” said Del. Brett Wilson, R-Washington County and a member of the work group. “There’s a lot of difference in opinions.

“I think the evidence is that (health testing) won’t amount to a hill of beans,” Wilson said. “There just doesn’t seem to be any merit to it.”

Wilson said he was swayed by the testimony of two experts at a council hearing, including a psychiatrist who administers mental health evaluations for police officers, who called for more periodic training.

Anderson disagreed and said while there is not yet a consensus on the panel about mental health testing he does think there are things that can be done, including “tightening up the loose language” in the current law and requiring that all departments use psychiatrists.

Anderson said he’d also like to see the group recommend expanding police-community interactions, including police athletic leagues.

“We want to make this a positive,” Anderson said.

The work group canceled its meeting this month and isn’t scheduled to reconvene until Jan. 11, two days before the start of the session. Anderson said that plenty of time is left to complete a set of recommendations that could result in bills sponsored by Busch and Miller.

Hogan’s veto

In addition to lawmakers taking up those issues when the legislature reconvenes in January, the General Assembly may also consider reducing criminal sentences for marijuana paraphernalia.

Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed a paraphernalia bill in May saying “law enforcement would be left with no authority to make a traffic stop if they see someone smoking while driving.”

Hogan and critics of the bill, including a number of states attorneys, were concerned that making smoking marijuana in public a civil offense carried a penalty that was less than that imposed for drinking a beer in public. They also expressed fears that courts would throw out cases that resulted from searches of vehicles under the bill.

Some legislators are threatening an override of Hogan’s veto. Others say the legislature may consider a competing bill from last year favored by states attorneys. That measure, sponsored by Anderson, contained provisions outlawing smoking marijuana in public places or in a car. It also doubled the amount of marijuana that would be decriminalized from 10 grams to 20 grams.

Incarceration and recidivism

Also likely to be on lawmakers’ agenda are measures to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the state and to lower the recidivism rate.

One of those proposals would provide in-patient drug treatment to non-violent offenders charged mostly with possession.

“The concept I believe that will emerge is there are individuals we will get into treatment in lieu of incarceration,” said Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Zirkin is also a member of the state Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, a panel of lawmakers, attorneys, judges and other criminal justice experts.

One bill Zirkin said he expects this year would require local governments to provide drug treatment to addicts as part of their sentences. Zirkin said the costs of such treatment can be cheaper than incarceration and would help end the revolving door of addicts arrested for possession, sent to jail and later released, only to return again.

“You’re not going to be able to help everybody, so jail might be an option for some, but jail never helped anybody beat an addiction,” Zirkin said.

State officials said earlier this year that efforts to provide additional substance abuse and mental health treatment will not be possible if there aren’t cuts in other costs.

“This is a huge driver,” Christopher Shank, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention and a member of the council, said in October. “All of the things that we want to get to we won’t if we don’t squeeze the numbers from somewhere.”

The council is also looking to lower the costs of incarceration and probation.

Last year, the state spent $34 million to send 3,200 people on probation back to jail for technical violations, such as missing appointments. Those sentences averaged 13 months in jail.

 Police body cameras

State lawmakers may also consider changes to the state’s public records laws that would govern the release of video produced by police body cameras.

In September, a commission focusing on the use of body camera technology released a final report containing 16 best practices that should be considered as the Maryland Police Training Commission develops a uniform set of regulations. Also contained in that report is the commission’s sole recommendation calling on the General Assembly to restrict public access to videos showing victims of violent crime or domestic abuse.

Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland Delaware DC Press Association, said the commission’s recommendation raises concerns for the news media and for open government advocates.

“I always come back to the whole reason they’re putting police body cameras in place is accountability,” Snyder said. “The public needs to be able to see that footage. The (Public Information Act) already provides a lot of discretion and protection for those times when footage should be shielded.”

Domestic violence and victims’ rights advocates and others say changes are needed to shield victims and prohibit footage shot in homes, where there is an expectation of privacy, from being released to the public.

Only a few police departments in Maryland are using the cameras. Baltimore County announced earlier this year it would phase in use of the technology over the next several years. Baltimore City is field-testing different brands of body cameras and also intends to implement the technology on a wider scale.

But Snyder said no news organization in Maryland has successfully obtained body camera footage.

“It’s hard, hard, hard, to get info out of the police precincts and police department in general,” Snyder said. “Changing the (Public Information act), it’s going to get harder.”

Snyder said access to the footage is imperative if the goals of the cameras — improving trust between the police and community and spotlighting incidents of police misconduct — are to be realized. She noted that video showing a Chicago police officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald a year ago was withheld by the department and only released after a reporter there filed a public records request and threatened a lawsuit.

“Nothing happened until that footage was made public,” Snyder said.

 Next week in the Annapolis Summit series: Education.