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Floyd’s death, protests spur Md. police reform efforts

In this Sunday, June 7, 2020, photo, the sun shines above a mural honoring George Floyd in Houston’s Third Ward. Floyd, who grew up in the Third Ward, died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

In this Sunday, June 7, 2020, photo, the sun shines above a mural honoring George Floyd in Houston’s Third Ward. Floyd, who grew up in the Third Ward, died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Memorial Day death of an unarmed Black man at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer caught on video sparked not only nationwide protests this year but calls from Maryland legislators for law enforcement reform in their state when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Chief among these proposed reforms is a statewide standard on the use of force by police officers coupled with efforts to recognize and prevent implicit racial bias in crime fighting, a scourge that many believe led to George Floyd’s May 25 death in Minnesota, lawmakers said.

“Maryland is poised to have the strongest police reform in the country,” said House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Vanessa E. Atterbeary, who led a legislative work group on police reform in advance of the coming General Assembly session. “This is the moment in time to get this done.”

Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat, cited the “national outrage” over Floyd’s death as a motivating influence within the House Work Group to Address Police Reform & Accountability in Maryland.

The group’s recommendations include a ban on the use of deadly force except when necessary to stop an immediate threat to an officer or civilian, a prohibition on chokeholds to restrain an individual, and a ban on shooting at vehicles not being used as a weapon.

‘Maryland is poised to have the strongest police reform in the country,’ says House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Vanessa E. Atterbeary, who led a legislative work group on police reform in advance of the coming General Assembly session. ‘This is the moment in time to get this done.’ (The Daily Record/File Photo)

‘Maryland is poised to have the strongest police reform in the country,’ says House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Vanessa E. Atterbeary, who led a legislative work group on police reform in advance of the coming General Assembly session. ‘This is the moment in time to get this done.’ (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Police officers would have an affirmative duty to intervene when they see another officer using an unreasonable amount of force, a recommendation spurred by the failure of nearby officers to prevent Floyd’s death as another officer held a knee to his neck for more than eight minutes.

Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore city, said an officer’s duty to intervene should be coupled with the responsibility to report the misbehaving officer. Reporting officers must be given whistleblower protection from retaliation within the police department, said Carter, adding that she introduced similar legislation a decade ago when she served on the House Judiciary Committee.

That legislation failed to gain traction in the General Assembly, even after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries he sustained in 2015 while in Baltimore police custody, Carter said. Gray’s death, which was not captured on video, touched off riots in the city that year.

“We’re always slow to do the right thing,” said Carter, a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “We’re not going to accept cosmetic changes this time.”

 Seeking ‘common ground’

John Nesky, president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said he welcomes a discussion of police reform proposals that seek a “balance between effective law enforcement and transparency and accountability.”

“We look forward to the upcoming session and striving to work toward common ground as we go through the myriad of proposed changes,” said Nesky, chief of the Bowie Police Department. “We do support a statewide use of force statute to endorse uniformity.”

Nesky said any use of force standard must be consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Graham v. Connor that officers may use such force as objectively reasonable based on the facts and circumstances facing them.

In addition to Floyd’s death, the slaying in March of Breonna Taylor by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers executing a no-knock warrant at the Black woman’s apartment has spurred proposals to end or sharply curtail the practice of police getting judicial permission to enter a person’s home without first announcing their presence.

Nesky said no-knock warrants should not be eliminated but must be limited to instances when they are clearly justified, such as when a “distinct threat” awaits the responding officer because “known weapons” are present.

“There needs to be scrutiny (of the no-knock warrant application) on a number of different levels before approvals are made,” Nesky added. “It is not a practice that should be used lightly.”

The Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association said it supports the continued use of no knock warrants so long as they are sought by police with a prosecutor’s prior approval.

‘Let’s not go overboard,’ says Sen. Robert G. Cassilly, R-Harford. ‘Let’s be reasonable in whatever we do here,’ he said of police reforms. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

‘Let’s not go overboard,’ says Sen. Robert G. Cassilly, R-Harford. ‘Let’s be reasonable in whatever we do here,’ he said of police reforms. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Saying “never say never,” Sen. Robert G. Cassilly, R-Harford, added that no-knock warrants should be limited to when the element of surprise is critical for the police, such as when people are being held against their will or criminals are suspected of destroying evidence.

“They ought to be available but rarely used,” said Cassilly, a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee member.

Cassilly also urged the Democrat-led General Assembly not to rush through a slew of police reforms based on police brutality that occurred in other states and without a showing that change is needed in Maryland law enforcement.

“Bad cases make for bad laws,” Cassilly said.

“Let’s not go overboard,” he added. “Let’s be reasonable in whatever we do here.”

Use of force standards

The police reform discussions leading up to the General Assembly session have included making violations of the use of force standards a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, in addition to the penalty handed down for any related homicide or assault conviction.

These crime and punishment talks have, in turn, sharpened the debate over who should investigate police misconduct to prevent actual or apparent conflicts of interest.

For example, lawmakers are expected to grapple with whether police can fairly examine the conduct of fellow officers or if local state’s attorneys can independently investigate officers with whom they have worked to track down and prosecute criminals.

Proposals are expected to be introduced that would place the duty of investigating police-related deaths in either the state prosecutor’s or attorney general’s office, agencies not tethered to local law enforcement.

“Different prosecutors prosecute differently,” Atterbeary said in defense of independent investigations.

There needs to be an even hand in making these decisions” to investigate and prosecute police, she added. “There needs to be a separate body.”

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy says his office has an agreement with Howard County where each would investigate police-related deaths in the other’s jurisdiction to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy says his office has an agreement with Howard County where each would investigate police-related deaths in the other’s jurisdiction to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association’s view is that its members are fully capable of investigating their local police.

However, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said the issue is not whether prosecutors can conduct an independent investigation but whether their investigation will be perceived as independent by the public.

To avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, McCarthy said his office has an agreement with Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson.

Under the accord, McCarthy’s office would investigate police-related deaths in Howard County and Gibson’s office would investigate police-related deaths in Montgomery County.

Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, praised the agreement between McCarthy and Gibson for its assurance of “independence in investigation.” But Smith, D-Montgomery, said he favors having a statewide standard for investigating police and not rely on accords between counties or a legislative mandate for such cooperation because in those cases “you are forcing a marriage.”

Nesky, the police chief, said his association supports independent investigations of police involved deaths conducted “in conjunction with a departmental investigation” because law enforcement leaders are accountable to the public.

“We recognize that we need to have an investigation that the public has confidence in,” Nesky added.

 


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