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"Fragile Majority" On Baltimore County Council Support Police Reform

Baltimore County

The Baltimore County Council is poised to vote on legislation next week that would reform the county police department.

It was nearly two months ago that the council shelved police reform legislation.

Tuesday night, the council held a hearing on a reworked proposal that in its current form has the support of a majority of council members. But possible last minute changes to the bill could make the final vote uncertain.

WYPR’s John Lee listened in on the hearing and joined Morning Edition host Nathan Sterner to talk about it.

Sterner:  How has the legislation been changed to make it possible it will pass this time?

Lee: What’s interesting here is what’s missing, what Councilman Julian Jones, the bill’s sponsor had to give up in order to get majority support on council.

For instance, his original legislation would have banned police officers from using chokeholds, period. That is no longer the case. Under the proposed legislation, officers can use chokeholds and other neck restraints to defend themselves or others from being killed or seriously injured.

Jones also wanted to introduce legislation that would restrict when police officers can use no-knock warrants. That is nowhere to be found in this legislation. But Jones says he does plan to introduce that as a separate bill next week.

Sterner: So what are the details of the police reform legislation currently on the table?

Lee: Here are a few: There is required annual training for police officers in de-escalation and use of lethal force. A police officer would be required to intervene if another officer is about to use excessive force. And a police officer who was fired or resigned in another jurisdiction due to a disciplinary proceeding could not be hired in Baltimore County unless the police chief signs off.

Republican Councilman Todd Crandell does not support the legislation. Crandell said the county police department does not need reform.

Crandell: “I think that it’s one that should be honored and applauded for how they go about their jobs. And I think that we should all have a greater appreciation for how difficult the job can be.

Councilman Jones countered that he also supports the police, but added you can’t be a cheerleader and bring about change.

Jones: “We would be naïve and foolish if we don’t think that there are police officers in Baltimore County that are not doing the right thing all the time.”

Sterner: What are the chances the legislation will pass when it comes up for a vote next week?

Lee: Councilman Jones calls that majority support he has on council a very fragile coalition.

Jones, who is a Democrat and the only African-American on the council, may be putting that fragile coalition to the test.

He said Tuesday night he might be offering a few amendments before next week’s vote. Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger has the ear of council members. Shellenberger opposed the original legislation but is now on board with the current proposal. However, Shellenberger said he was surprised Jones wants to make some changes.

Shellenberger: “We had to steer a very narrow course between all of the interests to agree in this case. And that is the chief, myself, the FOP, the council and the public.”

Lee: Jones said the amendments he may propose include making the police chief give an annual report to the county council. But he did not go into specifics, saying he would share those with council members Wednesday.

And to remind you how politically messy this issue can be, when Jones’ first attempt at police reform failed, he threatened to divide up that legislation into multiple bills and bring them to council to force votes on individual issues.

That’s when a compromise was reached. Six out of seven council members as well as the county executive were on board when it was announced earlier this month. But we’ll have to see if that holds up for the vote, which is expected to happen Monday.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County.
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