Statewide efforts to reform policing will be the focus of a three-day marathon of hearings that begins Tuesday before the state Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee. The hearings will consider issues related to body cameras, police discipline, and use-of-force policies.
The timing of the hearings — more than three months before the annual 90-day General Assembly session begins — is unusual, but Sen. Will Smith, chair of the committee, said this is an unusual time.
“Given the events nationally and here in Maryland, from Freddie Gray to the present, these issues are something that we can't afford to wait until session to grapple with,” Smith said. “We're having early hearings so that we can take immediate action once the session reconvenes in January.”
Over the three days, the committee expects to hear testimony on 15 bills.
Among the slate of bills on Tuesday’s agenda is one restricting when it is appropriate for law enforcement to use physical or deadly force and another creating a “duty to intervene” when a police officer sees a fellow officer using excessive force.
Past efforts to create statewide use-of-force policies and training requirements have faced resistance from law enforcement groups, which have pushed for each law enforcement agency to have the flexibility to set its own rules.
“Managing uses of force by police officers is one of the most difficult challenges facing law enforcement agencies,” Riverdale Park Police Chief David Morris, speaking on behalf of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said at a hearing before a House committee last month.
Sometimes physical force is unavoidable, he said.
“The responsibility of law enforcement officers to enforce the law, protect the public and guard their own safety and that of innocent bystanders is very challenging,” Morris said. “Interactions with uncooperative subjects who are physically resistant present situations that may quickly deteriorate.”
In those circumstances, Morris said, officers have to abide by a legal standard, established by the U.S. Supreme Court, that the force is “objectively reasonable.”
However, Smith said strong statewide use-of-force rules would allow officers to be held to a high standard.
“I'm under no delusion that that's going to be an easy conversation,” Smith said. “But I think, again, the time has come that we as a state must put in a uniform standard for use of force, and also institute more training that is actually enforceable.”
One of the most controversial issues is slated for Thursday’s hearing. The committee will hear testimony on two bills related to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a law protecting officers during internal investigations.
One proposed bill includes numerous changes to the law. For example, it removes some of the hurdles to filing a complaint against an officer. It also reduces to three days from five days the time an officer has to hire a lawyer before being interviewed during a misconduct investigation.
Another bill under consideration would repeal the law completely.
If it’s repealed, Smith said, it needs to be replaced.
“There are at least 148 law enforcement agencies across the state, and the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights sets the floor for discipline and due process,” Smith said. “If you repeal it and don't put anything back, you'll have basically a patchwork of discipline and due process across the state.”
The hearings are a starting point, Smith said. The legislation will almost certainly change shape between the end of the last hearing and the start of the session in January.
Still, the hearings have prompted outcries from people who say the proposals are extreme, as well as those who say they don’t go far enough.
The Senate’s 15 Republican members sent a letter to Senate President Bill Ferguson on Monday, urging him to cancel the hearings. They wrote that the bills are, “far-left, anti-police bills that have been floating around Annapolis for years.”
On the other side, the ACLU of Maryland wrote in a statement on Monday that the proposals don’t go far enough. The group is calling for police officers to be removed from schools and for Baltimore City to regain control over its police department.