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Editorial Advisory Board: The police union and police reform

The Baltimore police commissioner, Michael S. Harrison, said that if George Floyd had been killed by Baltimore police he would not have been able to fire them.

Although Baltimore’s citizens have an “expectation that when bad police behavior is brought (to Harrison’s) attention (he) will act immediately and hold people accountable,” Harrison says by law he cannot do so.

The law he refers to is the nearly 50-year-old Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, or LEOBR, passed by the Maryland legislature. There are calls from many directions to reform the Baltimore Police Department, but LEOBR protects the department and serves well to prevent meaningful change.

For example, if an officer is charged with misconduct, the investigation is undertaken within the department. If the investigation concludes there was misconduct — a potentially brazen decision by those who must continue to work within the Department – an internal recommendation can be made to discipline the officer, a decision that can be challenged by the accused and the Fraternal Order of Police, the Union. A trial board hears the charges but the complainant is not told of the ruling, and the commissioner is not required to follow any recommendation.

There is a Civilian Review Board, but its role is limited to specific types of alleged infractions and is based on complaints from the public — for example, excessive force, abusive language, false arrest, and the like. It does not receive the subject officer’s disciplinary record. And, it can only recommend discipline.

The CRB believes, as do we, that LEOBR protects police and hobbles the CRB. While new Speaker of the House Adrienne Jones announced in July that the legislature will discuss issues related to police reform, it must be noted that the union has contributed to the campaigns of numerous politicians who can influence police reform, including Jones whose campaign received $3,000 after she became speaker.

In fact, police unions or political associations contributed to seven of the 14 committee members appointed, including Committee Chair Vanessa Atterbeary, Luke Clippinger, Eric Costello, Isaac Schleifer, Maggie McIntosh, Curtis Anderson, and Sandy Rosenberg.  Senate President Bill Ferguson, as well, took contributions from the Union, as late as November 2019.

The Baltimore Brew reports that the union has distributed $50,000 to politicians since January of this year, and we are quite certain it holds out the prospects of future contributions to helpful politicians.

Reform, it would seem, is particularly challenging when both the Senate president and the House speaker have accepted union contributions. We have to assume the union expects something for its money, and thus rears the paid-for influence and conflict that could impede much needed reform, including revision of the state doctrine of qualified immunity now used by departments to shield bad conduct.

Arthur F. Fergenson and Debra G. Schubert did not participate in this opinion.


James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Michael Hayes

Julie C. Janofsky

Ericka N. King

Stephen Z. Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

Vanessa Vescio (on leave)

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.