It's Not Smooth Sailing For All The Police Reform Bills | WYPR

It's Not Smooth Sailing For All The Police Reform Bills

Sep 24, 2020

State lawmakers continued day two of their marathon hearings Wednesday on a series of bills aimed at reforming policing in Maryland. They heard from police, prosecutors, civil rights lawyers and from the mother of a 14-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police.

Police had been called to the Southwest Baltimore home of Greta Willis in August 2006 for what they were told was a fight between her and her son, Kevin Cooper.

They thought they had things calmed down, but a scuffle erupted again, and an officer shot Kevin in the shoulder. He was pronounced dead later that day at St. Agnes Hospital.

His mother complained during a virtual hearing of the state Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee that doctors performed a tox screen on her son’s body, but nobody tested the officer for drugs or alcohol.

“If victims are not given a choice to consent to a toxicology screen after any major incident, law enforcement officers should be required to submit to a toxicology screening,” she said.

She said one of the six bills before the committee, which would require officers who discharge their weapons in an incident that results in death or serious bodily injury to submit to a drug and alcohol test would reduce the loss of life by civilians.

That was the only one that didn’t draw opposition.

Police and prosecutors argued against a bill that would deem inadmissible the testimony of a police officer who failed to turn on his body camera during an incident.

Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said officers could suddenly come across a robbery or a shooting and get so involved in the incident that they forget to turn on the camera.

“A police officer that makes a simple mistake or fails to activate their camera in the heat of an unfolding moment should not impact that officer’s ability to testify to the facts in a case,” she said. “A civilian in the exact same circumstances would be permitted to testify and a police officer should as well.”

And Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby argued that a bill to give the state prosecutor the power to investigate police misconduct cases would interject partisan politics into the cases.

The bill ignores the fact that the state prosecutors are appointed by the governor and have no ties to a particular community, she said.

“And relying on a politically appointed position with no ties to a particular community to carry out one standard of justice is counter to what this legislative body is attempting to do here today,” Mosby said.

The bill's sponsor, Montgomery County Democrat Will Smith, said he thought it had an element of political accountability because the prosecutor is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

“And then they’re insulated from the political whims and there’s a certain independence there because they’re appointed for a six-year term,” he said. “I think that’s an actual strength."

Another of Smith’s bills, which would lift civil liability limits in police misconduct cases, was criticized by Sen. Michael Hough, a Western Maryland Republican. He said many of the small towns he represents, like Mt. Airy, could be wiped out by some judgments.

“How do you continue to have a police force when you’re facing at any time unlimited liability,” he asked. “A lot of these towns can’t afford a million-dollar suit against them.”

But Cary Hansel, a civil rights lawyer, said those small towns are part of the Local Government Insurance Trust, which has assets of billilons of dollars.

"So, the $5 million budget of Mount Airy, which was mentioned earlier, would not be touched,” he said. “Because Mt. Airy is now and has been for many years a member of the local government insurance trust, as were the other small towns and almost every other small town in Maryland.”