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Prosecutions end but police reforms must persist, Md. lawmakers say

After the press conference by Marilyn Mosby at the 1700 Block of Presbury Street, NAACP Baltimore President Tessa Hill- Aston consoled Freddie Gray’s Mother, Gloria Darden, as she cried out about her son’s death while in police custody. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

After the press conference by Marilyn Mosby at the 1700 Block of Presbury Street, NAACP Baltimore President Tessa Hill- Aston consoled Freddie Gray’s Mother, Gloria Darden, as she cried out about her son’s death while in police custody. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Despite the absence of successful prosecutions, Freddie Gray’s death from injuries sustained in custody in Baltimore will continue to prompt changes in the conduct of policing in the city and the state, Maryland legislators said Wednesday.

Sparked by the civil unrest that followed Gray’s death in April 2015, the Maryland General Assembly in 2016 passed and Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law legislation calling on the state Police Training and Standards Commission to develop best practices for community policing programs. These reforms, among others called for in the 41-page Public Safety and Policing Workgroup legislation, will be implemented over the next several years in an effort to reduce discord between police officers and the communities they serve.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin said the Senate committee he chairs, as well as the entire General Assembly, balanced the desire of police officers to protect the public and the concerns of peaceful protesters following Gray’s death that law enforcement had gone too far.“These are complex issues that don’t lend themselves to bumper-sticker solutions,” said Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“It is a delicate balance,” added Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “I can’t even imagine the difficulty and stress that goes into being a police officer.”

The new law also contains provisions making it easier and less intimidating for the public to register complaints with police departments and for police investigations to be more transparent. For example, people apprehensive about police reprisals can submit anonymous complaints under the statute.

The law also calls for mediation of citizen complaints about police activities.

“When you can get people to sit down in a non-confrontational setting, it really helps to lower tension,” Zirkin said. “That’s not possible in every case.”

Another reform sought by many began in May, when Baltimore police launched an $11.6 million body camera program that will provide all officers with the equipment by 2018.

Gray’s death was one of those cases as it sparked riots in Baltimore and resulted in the indictment of six police officers on charges ranging from misconduct in office to second-degree depraved heart murder. Three of the cases ended in acquittal and a fourth resulted in a mistrial.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby opted not to prosecute the other three officers, a decision announced in open court Wednesday morning.

Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he recognizes the desire of many of his constituents for instant police reforms, such as the use of body cameras on police. But he said the wiser approach is to let the new law’s reforms take shape and hold, such as community policing programs that include training of all officers.

“Regardless of the urgency of the situation, we have put changes in that will hopefully address the problems we have seen in Maryland and nationwide,” said Anderson, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee.

Anderson also noted that Gray’s death and the ensuing riots prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the patterns and practices of the Baltimore police. DOJ’s year-long investigation and its report, expected by summer’s end, will include recommendations on ways the police department can improve its relationship with the community, Anderson predicted.

“It is no longer an ‘if,’ it’s more so a ‘when these changes will be made,’” he said.

The ACLU’s Maryland chapter, however, urged state lawmakers to act quickly “to take responsibility for dismantling the structural barriers to police accountability,” such as by putting civilians on police trial boards investigating police misconduct.

“State officials should follow swiftly in Annapolis by changing the law to ensure that internal affairs investigations are not kept secret,” the American Civil Liberties Union’s state branch added in its statement following Mosby’s decision not to prosecute the three remaining officers.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, said police departments across the state can learn from the Freddie Gray case even in the absence of criminal liability for the officers.

“It is very clear that all of the departments need to review their regulations regarding the use of force and the safekeeping of suspects,” added Raskin, who is running for Congress in Congressional District 8, which includes parts of Montgomery, Frederick and Carroll counties.

Raskin, a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, praised provisions of the new law calling for community mediation, saying he hoped that all Maryland jurisdictions would quickly adopt the peaceful problem-solving method.

But Sen. H. Wayne Norman Jr., R-Harford and Cecil, said the General Assembly was “overly reactive” in passing police reform legislation following the death of Gray in the absence of any proof of police wrongdoing. He also faulted Baltimore for paying a $6 million settlement to the Gray family before a lawsuit had even been filed.

“There are a lot of people in this country who still support law enforcement. I don’t think they’re the problem,” said Norman, who also sits on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “If the street cop has confidence in the mayor, the police commissioner, the state’s attorney, that will go a long way to a systemic change.”