Police departments around the state could be required to begin using body cameras and release some disciplinary records of officers under a set of recommendations made by the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing.
The recommendations are the latest aimed at law enforcement as the 2021 General Assembly session nears and the focus on police reform and accountability sharpens.
The recommendations will be part of a final report expected later this year and are separate from police reform efforts underway in the House and Senate that are expected to be part of legislation in the 2021 session. That final report is expected to be delivered to Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly by the end of the year.
Among the recommendations is one that would ultimately mandate departments to begin using body cameras within two years. Ashiah Parker, a citizen member of the panel, questioned the need to delay implementation.
“We’ve been talking about body-worn cameras for a long time now,” said Parker, who lives in west Baltimore and is executive director of No Boundaries Coalition, a nonprofit community advocacy group.
The panel unanimously approved to the recommendation with a delay until fiscal 2023 to give local governments time to find funding for the purchase of cameras and storage of the video.
“If we set a drop-dead date, like a year from now, I’m not sure all the agencies, unless they get financial help from the state and the federal government, can adhere to that,” said Jim Robey, a former state senator and former chief of the Howard County Police Department.
The seven-member panel, led by retired U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams, was created in 2018 to make recommendations to review Baltimore City Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. The now-disgraced and disbanded unit was once credited with helping to reduce crime in the city. A federal investigation into corruption involving the unit resulted in two detectives being convicted and seven other officers, including one from Philadelphia, pleading guilty to federal charges.
The recommendations approved Friday include some specifically focused on the Baltimore Police Department while others are meant to apply more broadly to departments statewide.
The panel is also recommending that the Baltimore department enhance its community relations and recruiting, both in-person and through virtual events, as well as adopt policies that limit the use of plainclothes enforcement units.
The five-member panel recommended that police departments be required to review the service records of officers transferring from other departments.
“That is the step that gets missed,” said Sean Malone, a commission member who is also a lobbyist and former counsel to the Baltimore City Police Department. “People will sign it but the extra step of reviewing it, considering it doesn’t always take place.”
Robey, the former police chief, called the recommendation “a wise move.”
“It sort of eliminates the chances of hiring the officer that shouldn’t be hired,” he said.
On Thursday, a House work group appointed by House Speaker Adrienne Jones, finalized its recommendations for the coming session, including a statewide use of force policy for police officers, a ban on chokeholds and the repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.
Those recommendations are expected to be turned into legislation.
The Senate already has nearly a dozen draft bills on similar subjects as part of the police reform effort being led by Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery and chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. The panel held a rare out-of-session hearing on the drafts. Those hearings are meant to serve as a substitute for in-session meetings as Smith and Senate Democrats hope to introduce and pass those versions as early as the end of January.
The panel led by Judge Williams included one recommendation not part of the House discussions: revisions of the Maryland Public Information Act that would make some complaints about officers subject to release. Currently, such complaints are considered personnel records. The shielding from public scrutiny makes it difficult to know if particular officers have faced previous disciplinary actions.
“That’s a tough one that has to be well-balanced,” said Williams.
“There are some circumstances where we just should not allow this information to get out into the public because its prejudicial and it is of no essence,” he said.
Of concern is the release of complaints determined to be unfounded. Unions representing police officers as well as some departments have rejected calls to release all complaints because of concerns that false complaints filed against officers would unnecessarily damage reputations.
“Clearly with regard to substantiated complaints that reveal a pattern of conduct of police officers … that should not be hidden under the Public Information Act,” said Malone, adding that officers “shouldn’t be subjected to slanderous allegations that are unproven.”
Other members questioned if many officers were actually subjected to false complaints.
“Is it a real thing that people put false allegations on police over and over? I don’t know,” said Parker, the west Baltimore activist. “We definitely don’t want police officers who are innocent to be targeted by the community, but is that a real thing? Unless there is data to support that I’d definitely want allegations to be public because maybe, like Commissioner Robey said, there’s an issue with the trial board process.”
Robey, the former police chief, said there is a need for more transparency, which might include cases of unfounded complaints that show a pattern of alleged behavior.
“I think we need to open the doors more for people to peer into the vault and see what the records of these officers are,” said Robey.