During a 4 hour public hearing Tuesday night, the Baltimore County Council heard debate over a controversial package to reform the county police department.
The sponsor of the legislation and the county police chief squared off over the proposed changes.
WYPR’s John Lee was listening in to last night’s public hearing and joined Morning Edition host Nathan Sterner to talk about it.
Sterner: Councilman Julian Jones is proposing the legislation. What would it do and why is it so controversial?
Lee: Among other things, Jones wants to ban police officers from using choke holds. His bill also would require a police officer to intervene when another officer is using excessive force. Officers also would get de-escalation training at least annually.
Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt told the council that her department had been doing an extensive self-evaluation of its policies even before the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May touched off a national debate.
Hyatt said there are proposals being imposed across the country without being fully developed. The chief made it clear that she thinks that is what could happen with Jones’ legislation.
Hyatt: “Our officers are rightfully worried about whether they may be unfairly painted with a broad brush and whether they will be able to continue to do the difficult and dangerous job that we ask them to do in good faith using the training and equipment that we provide.”
Lee: Councilman Jones asked the chief if there was anything in the legislation she could support. He was not satisfied with the chief’s answer that they could agree on the spirit of what the bill would do.
Jones: “It appears to me that there’s nothing we can do that will satisfy you because it would appear as though you do not want any oversight at all, that we should somehow just trust everthing you’re doing when in fact the reason we are where we are today in this country is because the public is saying enough is enough.”
Lee: Jones and others argued that policy change within the police department is not enough because police chiefs come and go. They want changes to be codified.
Sterner: Were there specific parts of the legislation that seemed to concern council members?
Lee: There were and here are a couple of examples. There were questions about how you define the use of force. There was concern about the part of the legislation that prohibits a police officer from intentionally getting in the path of a moving car unless the vehicle poses an unavoidable threat to the officer or others.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger calls Jones’ legislation unworkable.
Shellenberger: “To tell an officer what they can and cannot do at 2 o’clock in the morning when they’re rolling around on a road trying to save their own life, I think is truly unfair. We don’t do it with any other profession. We don’t tell people how they have to behave when their life is in danger.”
Lee: Shellenberger said there are good concepts in the bill. For instance, he thinks it’s a good idea to have an officer quickly report an incident of excessive force by a fellow officer.
Around 50 people signed up to speak at last night’s hearing. Most spoke in favor of the legislation. George White, who lives in Pikesville, told the council that change can sometimes hurt. White said you have to speak truth.
White: “As a Black man I am afraid. After it gets dark at night you don’t want to go out because you’re afraid of what may happen, and the way things have happened in the past, there is a high opportunity that they may happen in the future.”
Sterner: So what happens now?
Lee: There was no vote last night. The county council is scheduled to vote on the legislation this coming Monday. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen with this legislation. A couple of council members already say they will vote no. The others appear to have a lot of questions about it.