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Md. police accountability bill concerns Democrats, Republicans

ANNAPOLIS – Legislation aimed at making police departments more responsive to community concerns following riots in Baltimore last spring drew scorn Tuesday from Democrats who say the bill does not go far enough and from Republicans concerned the statewide reform effort fails to address local law-enforcement needs.

The debate before the House Judiciary Committee before an overflow crowd centered on a bill to codify about 20 recommendations made last year by a legislative working group on public safety and policing.

The recommendations include extending the time residents can file a complaint against a law-enforcement officer from 90 days to a year and a day, making police disciplinary proceedings more transparent, establishing an independent police training and standards commission to focus on best practices, and limiting the time an officer can take to retain an attorney for internal investigations from 10 days to five days.

Del. Erek L. Barron, D-Prince George’s County, hailed the legislation’s goal of increasing police accountability but said the measure’s provisions should provide greater assurance that complaints will be taken seriously, particularly in cases less publicized than Freddie Gray’s riot-spurring death while in police custody.

Investigations should be conducted in any cases involving a suspected officer-caused injury that required medical attention, said Barron, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus.

In addition, police disciplinary boards should be presided over by an administrative law judge to ensure impartiality and residents should be able to file complaints against the police confidentially or even anonymously, he said.

The current requirement that people place their names on complaints has “a chilling effect on the community” and the willingness of its residents to come forward, Barron said.

“Complainants may have a reason to fear retribution,” he added.

Barron’s call for anonymous complaints drew criticism from Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr., R-Baltimore County and a Judiciary Committee member. Such unsigned complaints are impossible to investigate and likely violation the officer’s due-process rights, Cluster said.

But David Rocah, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said anonymous complaints are constitutional and can spark needed investigations.

“You can uncover significant wrongdoing by an anonymous complaint,” Rocah, the ACLU of Maryland’s senior attorney, told the Judiciary Committee. “Logic, common sense and best practices say that as well.”

‘Better atmosphere’

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said the legislation seeks “to create a better atmosphere between law enforcement and communities” and would enable Maryland to “be a role model for the rest of the country” on police cooperation with communities.

Del. Curt Anderson, a lead sponsor of the bill and House chair of the Public Safety and Policing Work Group, said the measure’s call for greater transparency of police disciplinary proceedings would end “a situation that has been shrouded in mystery for many years.”

The bill also calls for the creation of a 16-member state police training commission that would include the attorney general, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, the heads of police organizations and three law enforcement officials selected by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate.

The commission would take testimony from the general public, Anderson said.

“The civilian voice would be heard but it would not overwhelm” the experience and expertise of the law-enforcement members, said Anderson, D-Baltimore City. “We’re trying to get best practices [from] all over the state so that they apply all over the state.”

But Del. Trent Kittleman, R-Howard and Carroll, voiced concern that a statewide standard of best practices would not accommodate the disparate needs of law-enforcement departments in different jurisdictions. She also objected to the need for Senate approval of the governor’s choices for the training commission, saying that could violate the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

Anderson noted in response that the governor’s judicial nominations for Maryland’s appellate courts are subject to the Senate’s advice and consent.

The training commission’s appointment process “ought to be the same way we do judges because it is such an important position,” Anderson said.

House Bill 1016 has companion legislation in the Senate. Senate Bill 1026 also emerged from the Public Safety and Policing Work Group’s recommendations.

The 20-member, bipartisan panel was created by legislative leaders in May and examined police training, recruiting and hiring practices. It also reviewed the state’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, a framework of due-process rights for police officers.