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Party-Line Split On Police Reforms in House Workgroup

Patrick Semansky

Members of the Maryland House of Delegates are considering at least a dozen changes to the laws governing police, from rules about the use of lethal force to who is responsible for investigating accusations of misconduct. During a meeting Thursday, support for those changes appeared to break down along party lines, with Republicans resisting some of the bigger shifts from the status quo.


After hearing from community members, civil rights advocates and law enforcement officials over the last few months, the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability has turned its attention to creating policy recommendations, which will likely become bills when the full General Assembly meets in January.


Workgroup chairwoman Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat, said Maryland will implement reform. The question is how far that reform will go.


“We know that Maryland is no different than the rest of the country, and we need sweeping police reform, and we need it now,” she said.


On their face, some of the proposals under consideration appear less controversial. 


For example, Baltimore Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat, said all police agencies in the state should be required to equip patrol officers with body cameras. Then legislators can create protocols for when the cameras need to be on, how long the agencies keep the video, and who can view the video.


Some of the workgroup’s Republican members said they were OK with cameras, but they had some caveats. 


Allegany County Del. Jason Buckel raised concerns that strict rules governing when body cameras need to be turned on could be exploited in court by criminals.


“I don't want to get into a situation where we're creating evidentiary rules or legalistic rules that would allow for the release of actual criminals who are convicted by a jury of their peers,” Buckel said. “Despite the best intentions of God and man, sometimes the technology just doesn’t work, and I don’t want to create anything that would allow loopholes for criminals because the technology doesn’t work.”


A mandate to use body cameras needs to come with money to pay for them, said House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties. The same goes for a proposal to have periodic mental health evaluations for officers.


“Sounds like we need to increase funding for law enforcement, and I'm OK with that,” Szeliga said.


The workgroup members appeared to split along party lines for most of the policies discussed, including calls for statewide rules governing when police officers can use lethal force.


Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, a Democrat from the Eastern Shore, said new use-of-force rules need to be accompanied by de-escalation training.


“If we don’t have a standard or if we don’t have proper training in that area, it is a pivotal moment for law enforcement and the citizen because it could be a matter of a citizen walking away, driving away or being picked up by a coroner if this situation doesn’t go right,” she said.


Buckel said he would support creating a new standard for when lethal force is allowed, but he warned against creating rules that are too restrictive.


“You can’t legislate or micromanage a fight,” he said. “You can’t legislate that and say, well, from 5,000 miles away five years ago, I said, you can’t hit them with this maneuver. You can’t use that one. That’s illogical and it would create its own problems.”


Several Democrats said they want to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a state law that outlines procedures for police internal investigations. Critics say it gives too much protection to officers accused of misconduct.


Lawmakers also debated creating an independent body to oversee police misconduct investigations. Some Democrats suggested it could be part of the Attorney General’s Office, but Republicans rejected that idea.


“[Maryland Attorney General] Brian Frosh sues President Donald Trump any opportunity that he can, so you know, that is clearly a political office,” Szeliga said. “The AG’s Office may not be the best place.”

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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