Democratic legislators on Thursday basked in the General Assembly’s passage of police reform legislation to curtail deadly and excessive force and make the police disciplinary process uniform across the state and with greater civilian oversight.
But their Republican colleagues – and the state’s GOP governor – voiced concern with legislation they believe adopted too much of the House of Delegates’ strict limits on and oversight of police actions and too little from what had been the Senate’s more bipartisan approach to police reform.
The Senate passed the proposed Police Reform and Accountability Act on Wednesday on a largely party-line vote of 31-16; the House of Delegates tally was 97-39. Both votes would be sufficient to override a veto by Gov. Larry Hogan if he chooses to reject the legislation.
Hogan said Thursday that he will “take a careful look” at the bill, which resulted from a House-Senate compromise.
“Police reform is an important topic, and I think there were a number of positive steps that the legislature has proposed,” Hogan said 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.”
Hogan did not get more specific, but many Republican opponents of the bill voiced concern that its tight 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.
Sparked by Floyd case
The General Assembly’s nearly session-long 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 legislation 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.
Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore, called it tragic that it took a nationally broadcast video of a death in Minnesota to focus the General Assembly’s attention on police brutality, which she said has similarly plagued Maryland.
Carter called the legislation “a major step forward” for the state in preventing excessive force by officers and ensuring that those who fail to exercise restraint will be held accountable.
“What we have done is move Maryland into the forefront of police reform,” Carter said.
“Police need to use alternatives to violence whenever they can,” she added. “We want them to make reasoned decisions and (exercise) good judgment.”
But Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, said the General Assembly was driven “too much (by) emotion” in drafting police reform legislation following Floyd’s death.
“Frequently an emotional response is not the best response,” Cassilly said. “We should have gone in with a scalpel and we went in with a chainsaw.”
Specifically, the senator said, the General Assembly engaged in “creative writing” by erasing what an objectively reasonable officer would do when faced with a violent threat and replacing it with an ill-defined use of necessary force, which leaves the officer more open to being second-guessed.
“I have never been in favor of Monday morning quarterbacking when it involves people putting their lives at risk” Cassilly said of police officers. “We did nothing in the General Assembly to make the people of Maryland safer (with this bill).”
The measure would increase public access to completed internal police investigations. 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 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.
House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard, agreed with Hogan to the extent that the measure headed to his desk more closely aligns to the House’s omnibus reform bill than to proposals initially passed by the Senate.
Atterbeary credited the General Assembly’s preference for the House bill to the House’s establishment of a Work Group to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland, which Atterbeary led and began preparing legislation last summer.
By contrast the Senate — via its Judicial Proceedings Committee — began holding its presession police reform hearings in the fall.
“It all comes down to process,” Atterbeary said of the House’s omnibus legislation introduced by Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, D-Baltimore County, as compared to the Senate’s piecemeal proposals.
The final bill is “a huge leap forward for the state of Maryland, a huge moment for our state,” Atterbeary said.
A ‘great place’
Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, disagreed with those who say the Senate yielded to the House bill, saying the final measure was “an amalgamation of Senate-House work product,” including the necessary and proportional standard for the use of force.
“Where we landed was a great place,” said Smith, D-Montgomery.
“It’s a tremendous step forward for Maryland,” he added. “Obviously, the work is not done.”
Smith said further police reform legislation is needed to reduce confrontational interactions between police, such as by decriminalizing nuisance offenses like disturbing the peace or urinating in public or by having psychologists on hand in situations involving mentally ill individuals.
“We need a full-on, full-throated, total review” of police interactions to determine when “perhaps law enforcement is not the appropriate social response,” Smith said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated that the Senate vote would be insufficient to override a veto. The Senate requires at least 29 votes, or three-fifths of the body, to override.