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Maryland Lawmakers Get Input From Public Before They Craft Police Reform Legislation

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Mary Rose Madden
/
WYPR

A bipartisan panel of Maryland lawmakers heard from dozens of residents and legal advocates Thursday  who called for police reform measures.

Black residents told the workgroup of traumatizing encounters with police from Anne Arundel to Howard counties, from Baltimore County to the city.

Greta Willis told of the death of her 14 year-old son, Kevin Cooper, who was shot by a Baltimore City police officer in August 2006.

"My son was experiencing a mental health crisis," she said. "I called the police seeking help for Kevin. Two officers initially responded but one officer left, stating the call was "abated," meaning the call was over."

Reports from the time show that the second officer remained, taking information for a police report. Willis says that officer antagonized Kevin but the report says he and his mother began arguing and Kevin attacked the officer with a broom handle. The officer shot Kevin.

"He became the judge, the jury, and the executioner of Kevin’s life."

Willis told the lawmakers that it was ruled a "justified homicide," and that no criminal charges were brought against the officer.  She urged the delegates to make accountability their number one priority in the next General Assembly session. 

The workgroup, convened after the death of George Floyd at police hands in Minnesota last spring, is looking at several reform proposals, among them making police misconduct investigations public record.

Lawyers from the ACLU and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender argued that Maryland’s Public Information Act should be amended so police internal affairs records are considered public record rather than personnel documents that can be sheilded from public view. They also called for repeal of  the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.

That law, established nearly fifty years ago, protects officers in investigations of police misconduct.

Together, they said, these two changes wouldn’t be a cure-all, but would make Maryland’s laws similar to the majority of other states.

Monisha Cherayil, a lawyer with The Public Justice Center, argued that police in Maryland schools, known as “school resource officers,” are doing more harm than good.

She said the vast majority of arrests—70%—were for fights not involving weapons, and for disruption, trespassing and small time theft.

"We are arresting kids for being kids in the very setting where they are supposed to learn how to grow into successful adults," Cherayil told the group. "We’re doing it because the cops we assign to our schools are by definition responsible for enforcing the law."

She said a child in a school with a police officer is five times as likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct and twice as likely to be arrested for a fistfight.

But Delegate Kathy Szeliga, a Baltimore County Republican, said her constituents are satisfied with their children’s school resource officers.  

"Asking to get rid of the school resource officers in my part of the state would be boldly rejected because those school resource officers are trained really well in social work," Szeliga said. "We look at it as an opportunity for the police and law enforcement to have very positive interactions with children." 

Others urged the workgroup to be critical of symbolic gestures that don’t provide real change and they asked the legislators to give the communities more oversight over their police departments. And they described an unequal power dynamic and a relationship that thus far, has been toxic to many Black Marylanders.

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