As the country approaches the end of a second week of protests over police abuse of black Americans, state and local leaders in Maryland are calling for reforms, including changes to state laws governing police. Many of the proposed changes have been attempted before unsuccessfully, but some lawmakers say this time is different.
A ban on chokeholds; a duty to intervene when police see other officers using excessive force; an independent investigator to prosecute deaths or injuries caused by police; and required implicit bias training are among the reforms Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat who leads the state Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, calls for in a letter sent Thursday to constituents, journalists and fellow senators.
“It is really sad that it's taken, you know, yet another high profile murder for us to have the political will to take the necessary steps,” Smith said. “But I do want to capture this moment.”
The protests around the country have created the political will to pass reforms that have been attempted in Annapolis in the past but have ultimately failed, Smith said.
For example, his letter proposes changes to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, a state law that protects police during investigations for misconduct. Among other things, Smith said he wants to eliminate a five-day waiting period between an incident and when the officers involved can be questioned about it.
“As a civilian walking down the street, if you were charged with something or accused of something, you don't get five days to come in and talk to the prosecutor,” Smith said. “So then it begs the question, you know, why are we giving the law enforcement officers that type of protection?”
Last weekend, House Speaker Adrienne Jones announced the creation of a new workgroup focused on police accountability and tapped Howard County Democrat Vanessa Atterbeary, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, to lead the group.
Atterbeary said the topics she plans to take up include use of force policies and making internal police misconduct investigations public record — policies that were considered and failed to make it through the General Assembly as recently as this year.
Like Smith, she said this moment feels different from previous times when police treatment of black Americans was in the public spotlight, including the months following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in 2015.
“I had a colleague of mine who is not in the same party as me send me an email and she was outraged,” Atterbeary said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re going to be on the same page about how we need to move forward, but everyone I think is coming from a position that we need to do something, and we need to do something now.”
Atterbeary said Maryland police departments should also eliminate officers who have been repeatedly accused of abuse — officers like the Minneapolis cop who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until he died.
Atterbeary, who is black and a mother of young children, said the deaths of Floyd and other black victims of police brutality and hate crimes make her worry for her sons.
“I think when my boys were maybe 3 and 4, and it was the anniversary of Trayvon Martin,” Atterbeary said. “And at that young age, I had to start talking to them about this because my one son was going through a phase where he just wanted to wear a hoodie every single day. And as a mother, I was kind of freaking out. I'm like, you can't walk around in a hoodie as a black boy.”
Other leaders calling for reforms include Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman submitted a budget request for police body cameras.
But Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and a frequent advocate on policing issues in Annapolis, said he isn’t optimistic that many of these reforms will pass.
“No matter how big the moment seems now, what ultimately matters to people is their livelihoods and their careers and their ambitions,” Love said.
He said he anticipates pushback from both the police union and politicians worried about the loss of campaign dollars.