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Maryland Lawmakers Consider Restricting Police Use Of Deadly Force

Patrick Semansky

State lawmakers heard testimony Thursday on a bill limiting the situations in which police can use lethal force. The bill is just one of a host of measures under consideration this year that aim to reshape policing in Maryland.

Sen. Jill Carter, the Baltimore City Democrat sponsoring the bill, pointed to the number of people killed by police as she explained the need to create a new standard for the use of force.


“Between 2013 and 2020, 144 people were killed by police in Maryland in at least 16 different counties,” she said. “Black people accounted for 60% of the people killed by police, although we are only 29% of the state's population.”


In Maryland, Black people comprise a higher portion of the people killed by police than in any other state, Carter told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Of those killed by police, about 22% were unarmed.


She said her bill is designed to improve the public’s trust in law enforcement by limiting officers’ use of lethal force.


“It allows officers to use force only when necessary as a last resort, after exhausting de-escalation and other reasonable alternatives,” she said. 


If the bill passes, any violation, including using unnecessary force, regardless of whether someone ends up dead; failing to intervene when another officer uses excessive force; or failing to obtain medical treatment for someone in need can land an officer in prison for up to five years. If the officer “knowingly and willfully” violated the bill’s provisions, the maximum penalty is 10 years.


According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 41 other states have a use-of-force law. Because Maryland lacks one, courts often have the responsibility of interpreting when an officer has used unreasonable force.


“That's the problem here in Maryland, is you have all kinds of hired guns, police experts who are defending departments in civil cases and saying, well, I find this objectively reasonable, and there's nothing in the statute to contradict them,” said Tim Maloney, a former state delegate from Prince George’s County and a lawyer who has both defended and sued police officers.


But Sen. Robert Cassilly, a Harford County Republican, argued that when doctors or engineers make a mistake and someone gets hurt, they can get sued, and a court decides if they acted reasonably. He asked why police should be treated differently.


"There is a world of difference between police officers and other professions because we are not ordinarily trusting the engineer, the lawyer, the doctor with a gun, with lethal force,” responded Baltimore attorney Cary Hansel. “We have not seen decades of evidence, like we have right here in Maryland, that that lethal force is being disproportionately used on minorities.”


However, Cassilly was visibly frustrated by this argument.


In the three weeks since the legislature returned to Annapolis, “I've seen no laws come in here to protect people from the vast amount of shootings, murders, rape, pillage going on wholesale throughout our society,” Cassilly said. “All I'm seeing is kill the cops, go after the cops, don't give them any discretion, don't trust them, they're all dishonest. I don't get what we're doing.”


Repeating an argument frequently made by Republican lawmakers, Cassilly said policing isn’t like wrestling — lawmakers can’t prescribe how an officer should react in a dangerous situation. 


Cassilly suggested Carter’s bill leverages the “crisis of race” at the behest of lawyers eager to win large sums of money suing cops.


“We're gonna make policing so damned expensive, nobody's gonna do it, and we're gonna all end up like Baltimore where the cops just ride around in their cars, and just pretend the crime's not happening because otherwise they're gonna be fired and liable,” Cassilly said.


Bowie Police Chief John Nesky, president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, also argued for giving greater discretion to police agencies. He suggested that rather than enshrine rules about force in state law, the legislature should create a new use of force policy, enforced by the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission. 


He said that would make it easier to change the rules as technology changes. 


“We totally agree that use of force is the most important topic that you can possibly have in the police realm,” Nesky said. “It's something that we don't like to do, but unfortunately, it's necessary, and there must be absolute strict policies and philosophy surrounding that use of force.”


The committee plans to workshop the bill Friday afternoon.


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