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Miller sends message on stalled Md. police oversight bill

ANNAPOLIS — The fate of a controversial police oversight bill appears to rest on whether legislators from Baltimore City press for an amendment adding two civilian members to a panel that reviews brutality cases.

The Senate sent the bill back to committee late Monday night — a procedural move that at this stage of the session typically seals the demise of legislation. But the move appears to be more about sending a message to city lawmakers to accept the current compromise proposal.

“We found a middle ground,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. “There’s still people wanting to push their agenda. While they’re pushing for their agenda rather than the agenda for the people of the state of Maryland the bill is going to remain in the committee.”

At issue is a desire by city legislators to have language in the bill that would place two civilians on a police administrative hearing board and give them a vote in police disciplinary cases.

Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore City and a candidate for mayor, called for the change Monday night, saying that it was supported by the city and the police chief and was needed to re-instill community confidence in the police department following the police custody death of Freddie Gray last April.

She was joined by Sen. William Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, who offered an amendment adding the members.

But before that amendment could be read, Miller had Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, order the bill back to committee.

The return to committee leaves little time to finish the work on the bill and have it passed by both the Senate and House before the 90-day session ends midnight on Monday.

Zirkin said the Senate version of the bill was a compromise and allowed each jurisdiction to add up to two members on local oversight panels as they saw fit but stopped short of carving out specifics for each jurisdiction because of the complexities of pre-existing collective bargaining agreements with individual police unions.

The bill as drafted by the Senate would enable local governments to add up to two civilian members by passing a local law.

A House bill contains language adding one non-voting member to police hearing boards.

Zirkin said that his committee would discuss the bill Tuesday afternoon.

“My opinion as we stand here, I think the compromise was good,” Zirkin said of the bill. “I think what we did was the right way to go about it on the hearing boards.”

Zirkin said picking apart collecting bargaining contracts “is of questionable legality” and said he and other legislators were seeking an opinion from the attorney general on the legality of the proposed amendment.

He gave no timeline for its return but said he remains optimistic the legislature can still pass the bill – adding that some senators will have to be willing to compromise.

“If they think they are going to get everything they want in this bill then they are sorely mistaken,” Zirkin said.

Efforts to reach Pugh for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Miller, following the session Monday night, told reporters that the procedural move could indeed spell doom for the bill but held out hope that city senators would back down from amendments for individual jurisdictions.

“If they can’t see the folly of their ways, let them understand the consequences of their actions,” he said.