Steve Lash//March 3, 2021
//March 3, 2021
The Maryland Senate on Wednesday passed police reform proposals to curtail excessive force, limit no-knock warrants, prevent departments from acquiring military equipment, mandate body cameras, make the police disciplinary process transparent and uniform and empower the state prosecutor to investigate and prosecute killings by officers.
With the Senate’s action, attention shifts to the House of Delegates, where its Judiciary Committee is expected to consider the legislation in the coming days.
The General Assembly’s debate of the reform proposals followed the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer that was caught on video and sparked nationwide protests to make law enforcement more accountable.
Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., who is Black, spoke of African-Americans’ “shared heritage” as he hailed passage of the reform legislation he shepherded through the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which he chairs.
“That (heritage) informs everything we do,” Smith, D-Montgomery, said on the Senate floor.
“That is what sparked this debate” on police reform, he added. “This convulsion that happened over the summer and the reckoning that we’ve gone through now is just the latest time that this generation will have to deal with these issues.”
The 47-member Senate unanimously passed bills pertaining to body cameras, no-knock warrants, surplus military equipment and state prosecutor investigations. Senators were divided on expanding excessive-force penalties and changing the police disciplinary process.
The approved body camera legislation, Senate Bill 71, would require all county police departments to use body cameras by 2025 and establish a task force to study the expansion of camera use to local departments.
Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, noted that the initial reticence of police and prosecutors to the mandated use of body camera has waned in recent years as they have come to the “gradual realization” that the recorded images generally show – and provide evidence – that the officers acted appropriately.
SB 178 would allow for no-knock warrants only if requested by the local police chief, or sheriff, and state’s attorney before submission for a judge’s signature. The measure would also limit the execution of no-knock warrants to the hours of 6 a.m to 10 p.m. unless good cause is shown to the judge for an overnight raid.
The legislation to limit when police can enter unannounced followed the slaying last March of Breonna Taylor by Louisville, Kentucky, officers executing an overnight no-knock warrant at the Black woman’s apartment.
SB 599 would prohibit police departments from acquiring grenade launchers; weaponized aircraft, drones or vehicles; destructive devices; or firearm silencers. The ban has the support of Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, who has said “we must curtail the growing militarization of the police.”
SB 600 would empower the Maryland state prosecutor to investigate and prosecute slayings by police officers. The legislation would lift that responsibility from state’s attorneys due to the apparent conflict of interest in having the local prosecutor examine the actions of a local police officer.
By a vote of 35-12, the Senate approved a measure expressly prohibiting the intentional use of excessive force and requiring officers to intervene if a colleague is about to or has resorted to such force. The intervening officer would also be required to report the incident to supervisors and would have whistleblower protections against retaliation.
An officer’s use of excessive force or failure to report a colleague would be guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to 10 years in prison under SB 626.
Sen. Jack Bailey, a former Maryland Natural Resources Police officer, voted against the bill, saying it would expand criminal sanctions on police officers while the General Assembly is reducing penalties for other criminals under the justice reinvestment movement.
“It is imperative that we recognize their daily sacrifice,” Bailey, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, said of officers.
But Sen. Michael A. Jackson, a former officer and Prince George’s County sheriff, praised the legislation for holding police accountable.
“We are only on the cusp of police reform,” said Jackson, D-Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert. “Accountability starts at the top.”
The Senate approved by a vote of 29-18 legislation aimed at increasing public access to completed internal police investigations, including those which conclude the misconduct allegations were unsubstantiated. Under SB 178, each police department’s custodian of the requested documents would retain discretion under the Maryland Public Information Act to deny the information request if disclosure would cause an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, interfere with an investigation, endanger a life or reveal a confidential source.
Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll, opposed the bill, saying unsubstantiated allegations should not be made public because of the damage to reputations that result from aired accusations.
“We all know what can happen,” Ready said. “We see it every day on our social media accounts.”
“It doesn’t matter how outlandish” the accusation, he added. “This is what will get out there.”
But Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, said releasing police investigations that clear officers help restore their reputations.
“’These allegations were not sustained,’” Kelley said, quoting the hypothetical officer.
‘“I can look people in the face,’” she added. ‘“I want people to know I didn’t do it.’”
The Senate also passed on a 33-14 vote legislation to bring the strong protections for police officers in disciplinary proceedings more in line with those pertaining to other civil servants.
The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, enacted in 1974, enables departments to investigate police misconduct internally and generally prohibits leadership from firing misbehaving officers unless they have been convicted of committing a felony, though suspensions with or without pay are available in cases of lesser malfeasance. SB 627 would give police chief broader authority to terminate officers, and its provisions could not be altered via collective bargaining by the police union.
LEOBR’s supporters counter that police need the greater protection because they face harsher realities on the job and must often use force to protect the public and themselves, a high-risk task that must be performed without the delaying fear that their reasonable reflexive reactions could result in severe discipline.
After the votes, Senate President Bill Ferguson hailed his colleagues for enduring what was at times harsh debate on police reform.
“For change to be durable and sustainable over time, it takes these hard conversations and it takes trying to find consensus to move this heavy ship that we call ‘society’ into a more just and more effective place,” said Ferguson, D-Baltimore city. “I think today’s work product is demonstrative of that hard work that is necessary to move that ship along the way so that we can get to a more just and more equal place.”a