The Maryland Senate on Thursday passed legislation that would give the attorney general authority to prosecute local police officers he or she finds criminally at fault for having killed someone or caused an injury “likely to result” in death.
With the Senate’s 27-20 vote, attention shifts to the House of Delegates, which is expected to consider similar legislation soon.
The Senate approval followed sharp Republican criticism of the measure as a “power grab” by the attorney general over the objection of local state’s attorneys, who say they have more experience and are better able to prosecute homicide cases against police officers when warranted.
But Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., the bill’s chief sponsor, said giving the attorney general prosecutorial authority would remove the inherent conflict of interest in asking local prosecutors to prosecute the local police officers whom they often see and work with on criminal investigations.
Removing the conflict would also foster trust in the prosecution of police officers, which has historically not been the case in Black communities when Blacks have been the victims of police brutality, said Smith, D-Montgomery and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“One need only walk through any marginalized or under-invested community in our state to understand the problem and the problem this bill seeks to solve,” Smith said.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that accountability is mutually exclusive of public safety, in fact we all know they are co-dependent and that’s exactly what this bill seeks to do, to restore that relationship and to restore that trust so that the communities can work with law enforcement and public safety officials to make sure that we’re all safe.”
Under current law, the attorney general investigates police-involved slayings but then must hand the case to the local state’s attorney, who ultimately decides whether to prosecute the officer.
The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 290, would give the attorney general exclusive authority to prosecute the officer or request that the local state’s attorney handle the prosecution, as is largely the case in three states: Minnesota, Connecticut and New York, Smith said.
The legislation is opposed by the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, which has said local prosecutors should retain the discretion to decide whether to prosecute officers and to handle the prosecution as well.
Senate Republican Leader Steve Hershey noted that Attorney General Anthony Brown, a Democrat, has only been in office since January.
“We have this attorney general, who’s been here for a cup of coffee, he comes in and decides that he needs more power to do what the woke anti-police agenda wants more than anything and that’s to prosecute law enforcement officers,” said Hershey, R-Upper Shore. “It is shameful that we have not addressed the crime in this state and yet we are going to pass legislation that makes it easier for the state of Maryland to prosecute police officers.”
Sen. William Folden, R-Frederick, said giving the attorney general authority to prosecute police could have a chilling effect on officers when they must make split-second decisions on whether to use deadly force.
“We’re doing things (legislatively) to come after those who provide the very blanket of security that we sleep under each night with more reasons to hesitate, to fail to act in their most critical moment,” Folden said.
“There is no reason this bill was brought forward except it’s a power grab again,” Folden added. “Someone wants this position of authority. We want to have our own mini DOJ (U.S. Department of Justice) here in Maryland, and we’re going to allow this to be the case.”
Senate Minority Whip Justin Ready, R-Carroll and Frederick, said giving the attorney general authority to prosecute police is unnecessary.
“I can’t for the life of me figure out the problem we’re trying to solve here,” Ready said. “Our local state’s attorneys do an amazing job.”
Brown testified in support of the bill last month before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“Senate Bill 290 is about ensuring that the public has confidence that prosecution decisions, just like investigations, are made in an impartial manner by people who do not work together or rely on each other professionally or personally to the extent to which our local state’s attorneys do with their local law enforcement agencies and officers daily,” Brown said.
“We’re not talking about inappropriate relationships,” he added. “We’re talking about close relationships when you are asking a state’s attorney to now investigate and prosecute a case against the very men and women that they work so closely with every day in fighting crime in our communities.”
If enacted, the attorney general’s prosecutorial authority would apply to police-involved slayings that occur on or after Oct. 1. The new authority would require the attorney general’s office to hire two attorneys, an investigator and a paralegal, according to the Department of Legislative Services.
SB 290 is cross-filed in the House of Delegates. House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore City, is chief sponsor of House Bill 857.