Thousands are marking the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington Friday with growing calls for police reform. In Maryland, those calls often point to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, or LEOBR, as a barrier to police accountability.
Representatives of law enforcement groups defended the LEOBR during a meeting with state lawmakers Thursday and pushed back on other suggestions for reform.
The LEOBR is a state law that standardizes internal police discipline procedures across the state. During Thursday’s meeting of the House of Delegates’ Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability, law enforcement leaders and their representatives said the law gives police crucial due process protections from unfair investigations.
“The LEOBR creates a balance between protecting wrongfully accused officers and empowering management to punish those who are justly deserving,” said Karen Kruger, a lawyer for the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association.
She said the law gives sheriffs and police chiefs a variety of powers that allow them to investigate misconduct, including the ability to compel police officers to answer questions and undergo drug or polygraph tests.
Lawmakers pushed law enforcement to say what changes they could support to the LEOBR, opportunities for civilian oversight, and policies governing the use of force.
Mike Davey, an attorney who represents police unions across Maryland, said he would be fine with civilians participating in internal investigations as long as the civilians know how policing really works.
“I don't think there would be a big issue with civilians, as long as they worked in conjunction with a law enforcement officer, had the prerequisite training or experience, whether it be a retired police officer, something of that nature,” Davey said.
However, Charles County Sheriff Troy Berry, the vice president of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, said investigations into police already have civilian oversight built into the process.
“If there are issues in regards to our use of force practices, those information is passed along to our State's Attorney's Office, and they can take said evidence and present it to a grand jury, which is made up of citizens in our community,” Berry said.
The meeting showed how far apart law enforcement and lawmakers are when it comes to how much change is necessary.
The killing by police of George Floyd in Minnesota and the recent shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin are not representative of police conduct in Maryland, said Riverdale Park Police Chief David Morris, representing the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association.
“The men and women of Maryland law enforcement deserve our collective support and respect,” Morris said. “What they do not deserve is the vile venom that has been spewed at them for months for something for which they were not responsible.”
Force is sometimes “unavoidable” in the line of duty, Morris added.
But Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who leads the police reform workgroup, said for her, the need for police reform is personal.
“I also am obviously a black woman raising three Black children,” Atterbeary said. “One of whom, you know, I'm very concerned about. He's only 8. He looks like he should be in middle school, and he could be threatening, you know, just to a smaller skinny white officer who thinks he's older than he is.”
Del. Wanika Fisher, of Prince George’s County, said law enforcement seemed to be missing the point.
“This Marylander is not willing to sacrifice any more Black lives for the status quo,” Fisher said. “I heard several of you say you make mistakes and that mistakes are made, but you're making mistakes with my brothers and sisters, that equals death.”
Fisher and other lawmakers emphasized that regardless of whether law enforcement wants it, change is coming.