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Maryland Senate Passes Police Reform Package

Rachel Baye

The state Senate passed Wednesday a package of bills that could reshape policing in Maryland. The package includes changes to rules governing when police can use lethal force and no-knock warrants, as well as to the controversial Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

Six of the nine bills passed unanimously, with little discussion. These include one that requires all state and county police officers to use body cameras by July 2025; one limiting the use of no-knock warrants; and one proposing an amendment to Baltimore City’s charter transferring control of the city police from the state back to the city. City voters would need to approve the change.

Three of the bills were more contentious. The measure that passed by the narrowest margin, with 29 votes, would make all complaints filed against police officers — even if an investigation finds no wrongdoing — subject to requests filed under the Maryland Public Information Act. 

“We should definitely crack down on the bad apples. We should definitely expose when wrongdoing has been done and proven,” said Senate Minority Whip Michael Hough, a Republican who represents parts of Carroll and Frederick counties. “But this bill puts people in jeopardy for doing their job and having somebody complain and it be unsustained.”

However, Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the bill could help police by educating the public about which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.

“People who complain and who think they've been done wrong, whether they're misguided or not, tend to go to the press, they hold demonstrations, they make the issue well publicized,” Kelley said. “If ultimately, after there's been a good investigation, the charges are not sustained, the public should know that.”

Two bills that alter the rules governing officers’ use of lethal force and make changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights also received divided votes, though ultimately passed. 

Sen. Jack Bailey, a Republican who represents Calvert and St. Mary’s counties and a former police officer, said he could not support the increased penalties the legislation imposes for officers who use unnecessary force.

“In the last three years, we have had a movement to decriminalize, rehabilitate, and limit penalties for criminal activity,” Bailey said. “Why we expand it for police officers when we cannot deal with the criminal actions that are taking place in Baltimore City is wrong.”

He suggested the Senate pair the changes to use-of-force policies with legislation to address crime rates in Baltimore. 

Sen. Justin Ready, a Republican from Carroll County, said he opposes the changes to the LEOBR because it blames police officers for “problems on both sides.”

“There's been problems in communities that have made it hard for law enforcement to adequately police,” he said. “There's no accountability or responsibility for some of the behavior that has happened in communities for a long time that has also led to problems.”

In response, Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Democrat whose district straddles Baltimore City and Baltimore County, reminded his colleagues that the legislature is making these changes to address “police brutality,” particularly toward Black people. 

“When you're trying to deal with cancer, or any type of disease, you talk about the cancer. You're not going to talk about one side or the other — you're going to talk about what it is that you're trying to deal with, so when we’re trying to deal with police brutality, we're going to talk about police brutality,” Sydnor said.

No one is trying to malign all police officers, he said. 

“All that we're asking for is to be treated like people. That's it,” he said. “There's no hate that's coming from any of these bills of this legislation. We just want to be treated like people.”

After eight of the nine bills passed, Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, a Montgomery County Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, reflected on the significance of police reform being shepherded through his committee, the Senate’s oldest, some of whose earliest members once owned slaves.

“Today, the committee is led by a descendant of those slaves, the first African American to serve as chairman,” he said. “And under his leadership, Maryland just passed the strongest police reform of all 50 states.”

In response, Committee Chair Will Smith said he has reflected a great deal on his heritage as he worked on the bills.

“Although the African American experience is nothing — we're not monolithic, right? We all have different experiences, we all come from different places. But we do have that shared heritage in the United States,” Smith said. “And that informs everything we do, the way we move about society, and that is what sparked this debate.”

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