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Md. House approves police reform bill

Clyde E. Boatwright, head of the Fraternal Order of Police Maryland Lodge, joins Republican state lawmakers Wednesday in a news conference opposing HB 670, which creates new oversight rules for police. The measure was given preliminary approval by the House later that day. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Clyde E. Boatwright, head of the Fraternal Order of Police Maryland State Lodge, joins Republican state lawmakers Wednesday in a news conference opposing H.B. 670, which creates new oversight rules for police. The measure was given preliminary approval by the House later that day. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The House of Delegates on Thursday night approved by a 96-40 vote a raft of police reform proposals to curtail deadly and excessive force, limit no-knock warrants and make the police disciplinary process uniform across the state and with greater civilian oversight.

A group of delegates and senators will soon meet to try to hammer out differences in the chambers’ approved reform measures and create a compromise measure to be voted on by the House and Senate and, if passed, sent to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk for his signature or veto.

The Senate passed its police reform package last week.

The General Assembly’s debate on police reform followed the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the knee of a Minneapolis officer that was caught on video and sparked nationwide protests to make law enforcement more accountable.

The House-passed Police Reform and Accountability Act would permit the use of lethal force only if “necessary” and “as a last resort” to save lives or prevent serious injury, a necessity standard that would be more stringent than the current one permitting deadly force it is objectively reasonable under the circumstances. Less-than-deadly force would have to be necessary and proportional to the threat posed, under the legislation, House Bill 670.

The measure would permit no-knock warrants to be issued only with the approval of the local police chief and state’s attorney, in addition to the judge, and only if a person’s life is in danger. The legislation would prohibit no-knock warrants from being executed between 7 p.m. and 8 a.m., a sharper limit than the Senate approved time frame of between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. except with good cause.

“We know that it is important to execute search warrants as part of criminal investigations,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore City and chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

“We also know people have Fourth Amendment rights,” Clippinger said during House debate Wednesday. “We need to be sure that we’re going to execute those warrants at a specific time when police officers can be seen, can be recognized, can be allowed to enter the property.”

During floor debate, the House rejected by an 88-50 vote an amendment by Del. Jesse T. Pippy, R-Frederick and Carroll, that would have eliminated the proposed time restriction.

“By implementing a time frame it’s almost as if we’re suggesting there’s no criminal activity after the hour of 7 p.m.,” Pippy, R-Frederick and Carroll, told his colleagues in vain. “We cannot put a time frame for search warrants.”

The proposal 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.

H.B. 670 would increase public access to completed internal police investigations including those which conclude the misconduct allegations were unsubstantiated. Under the measure 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.

The House legislation would also sharply reduce the strong internal protections for police in disciplinary proceedings by placing private citizens on charging boards and giving them greater say in bringing administrative charges and meting out sanctions on wayward officers.

“This bill puts the charging decision … in the hands of citizens,” said Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D- Howard and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “It puts the investigation in the hands of citizens and it puts the punishment in the hands of citizens.”

But Del. Gabriel Acevero, D-Montgomery, said the bill does not go far enough to ensure community control over the police, adding that civilian review boards with subpoena power should be established.

“We don’t want the appearance of community control,” Acevero said in proposing an amendment to the bill. “We want actual community oversight.”

The House rejected Acevero’s amendment by voice vote.

Currently, the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights 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.

The Senate-approved bill would give police chiefs 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.

Prior to the debate on H.B. 670, the House’s minority Republican leadership held a news conference in which they said the Democratic-sponsored reform proposals would hamstring officers in protecting innocent lives.

“We all want responsible police officers that serve and protect our communities and keep our families safe,” said House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke, R-Anne Arundel.

“If you want better police, why aren’t we talking more about training and innovation?” he added. “If you want more police officers, why are we obsessed with stripping their reasonable common-sense legal protections in the name of social justice?”

House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, R-Harford and Baltimore counties, said that “what the other side in the House seems to be obsessed with doing is making police the criminals while letting far too many of the real criminals walk free.”

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