By PAMELA WOOD BALTIMORE SUN |OCT 08, 2020 AT 6:09 PM
As political leaders wrestle with whether and how to modernize police departments, the Maryland House of Delegates is inching forward with recommendations.
A bipartisan work group that’s been meeting periodically for months voted Thursday to recommend changes as varied as requiring more mental health screenings of officers to studying whether someone other than officers should respond to certain 911 calls.
But legislators have yet to make some of their toughest decisions, including whether to revise a Maryland statute known as the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, what to include in a statewide law on use of force, and who should prosecute misconduct cases.
Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat and chair of the work group, said it will meet one last time Oct. 15 to hash out those issues.
The Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights affords officers certain protections when it comes to discipline, such as allowing them up to five days before being interviewed in investigations of alleged misconduct or improper use of force.
Police reform activists have zeroed in on the law as problematic, saying it allows officers to get away with scant discipline, and without information being made public.
Work group members also have not decided how investigations into misconduct and police violence should be handled. There have been calls for investigations and prosecutions of officers to be handled independently to avoid conflicts of interest.
“I’m looking for a way that’s a fair and neutral investigation and a fair and neutral prosecution,” said Del. Jason Buckel, an Allegany County Republican.
Local state’s attorneys have strenuously objected to losing their authority to prosecute officers. One suggestion was to allow the state’s attorney general to either have the same authority to prosecute police, or the ability to prosecute if a local state’s attorney declined to do so.
The work group agreed in concept that there should be a law limiting what types of force officers can use. But members haven’t settled on the details.
For instance, in preliminary discussions, lawmakers couldn’t agree on whether officers should be banned from using chokeholds. Del. Susan McComas, a Harford County Republican, said she had “heartburn” over banning chokeholds, and thought it would be better to simply discourage their use.
Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, an Eastern Shore Democrat, said it’s obvious chokeholds are a problem, given how many people have died in chokeholds while in custody.
“We’ve seen as a nation where that has gotten us,” she said.
Work group members agreed on a number of recommendations, including that the Baltimore Police Department, which is legally a state agency, should be returned to full city control. The police department is primarily funded by city tax dollars, but changes to the department have to go through state lawmakers in Annapolis instead of the Baltimore City Council. Past efforts to return the Baltimore Police Department to local control have failed.
They also agreed that prospective officers should undertake testing to reveal any implicit biases they may hold. Periodic implicit bias tests and training would be required for officers. That vote came along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.
Del. Gabriel Acevero said it’s critical to root out white nationalists and others who hold biased beliefs from police departments. He noted that police departments grew out of slave patrols.
“What we all know, and particularly Black and brown and LGBTQ+ communities know very well, is that disparate treatment is rooted in the way that some law enforcement officers view certain communities,” said Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Lawmakers also agreed that officers should have body cameras by 2025, that a college scholarship program could help with recruiting officers and that officers should undergo regular physical fitness tests.
The recommendations are likely to form the basis for bills that would be considered during the General Assembly session that starts in January.
The state Senate held three days’ worth of hearings on many of these issues last month.
Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics from The Baltimore Sun’s State House bureau in Annapolis. She’s been with The Baltimore Sun since 2013, and previously wrote for The Capital, the Maryland Gazette, the Daily Times (Salisbury) and Gannett News Service. She grew up in Howard County and graduated from the University of Maryland.