Maryland’s Democratic-led General Assembly on Wednesday gave final approval to 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.
The Senate passed the measure on a primarily party line vote of 31-16; the House of Delegates tally of 97-39 was also largely partisan. Both votes would be sufficient to override a veto by Gov. Larry Hogan if the Republican chief executive chooses to reject the legislation.
Hogan said Thursday that he will “take a careful look” at the bill, which resulted from an House-Senate compromise the governor contended leaned too heavily to the House’s preference rather than more bipartisan Senate proposals.
“Police reform is an important topic, and I think there were a number of positive steps that the legislature has proposed,” Hogan said Thursday on WBAL Radio’s “C4 and Bryan Nehman Show.”
“There’s been back and forth between the Senate and House,” Hogan added. “The Senate had passed nine different bills, some of which were really good. They all got totally rewritten over the past day or two by the House and they basically put some poison pills in each of the bills and combined them all together with some of the worst possible stuff, along with some positive reforms.”
The Senate’s Democratic Caucus hailed the bill’s passage, saying the measure contains “the most comprehensive reforms to policing in generations. Increasing public safety in Maryland requires restoring trust, transparency, and accountability between law enforcement and the community members they serve.”
Republican opponents of the bill, such as Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll, voiced concern that its tighter limits on officers’ use of force could result in innocent bloodshed as police might be hesitant to take forceful action for fear of being hauled before disciplinary authorities.
The General Assembly’s 12-week 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 Police Reform and Accountability Act would permit the use of lethal force only if “necessary” to save lives or prevent serious injury, a necessity standard that would be more stringent than the current one permitting deadly force if 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.
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.
The proposal to tighten the standards of 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. It represents a compromise after critics of the original, more restrictive proposal said it would hamstring legitimate police use of such warrants.
The measure would increase public access to completed internal police investigations. Under the legislation, each police department’s custodian of 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 bill would also 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.
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.