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Police Reform Unsettled With A Week Left In Legislative Session

Thousands of protestors demanding police reform march past the Baltimore City Detention Center in June 2020.
Rachel Baye
Thousands of protestors demanding police reform march past the Baltimore City Detention Center in June 2020.

With just over a week left in the General Assembly’s 90-day session, the House and Senate have passed vastly different versions of bills designed to reshape policing and have not yet reached agreement on the best way forward.

WYPR state politics reporter Rachel Baye joins Nathan Sterner for an update.

Last month, the Senate passed a package of police reform bills, while the House passed one big bill that made changes to a range of topics, including body cameras, police discipline and the use of lethal force. Where are these bills now?

First, that big House bill: When it arrived in the Senate, it dealt with a wide range of issues, as you mentioned. However, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee stripped much of that from the bill.

The version the Senate passed last week changes how police misconduct is handled, replacing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. It also increases the limit for legal settlements when someone sues the police, and it requires officers to have yearly mental health screenings.

One of the most controversial provisions says that if an officer commits a felony — including perjury — a judge can take away the officer’s pension.

Baltimore County Sen. Chris West, a Republican, was one of several senators from both parties who criticized that during debates. He argued that officers are at frequent risk of committing perjury because they testify so frequently in court.

“Is it unheard for, under … vigorous cross-examination by defense counsel about an event that may have occurred a year and a half or two years earlier, for a policeman to mix things up occasionally and get his facts wrong?” he asked.

Sen. Ron Young, a Democrat from Frederick County, said he has heard from several officers who are preparing to retire if the bill passes.

“I know that a couple of the others are so bitter they said they're going to talk to all the young guys and tell them to get the H out and find another job before they invest themselves and risk what they're going to have to risk,” Young said.

But Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat who leads the Judicial Proceedings Committee, repeatedly reminded senators that to be convicted of perjury, you need to intend to lie, not just make a mistake.

“If there's a mass exodus because this bill goes into law, we got something seriously wrong with our police department,” Smith said. “If we have rampant corruption, lying, commission of felonies during the course of your — performance of your duties, if that's something that's happening now and there is a mass exodus, I'd say that we're probably better off as a state.”

The Senate passed the bill. What’s next?

The House voted Friday afternoon to reject the Senate amendments. Typically at this point, both chambers appoint members to a conference committee to negotiate until they reach a final version everyone can support.

However, the Senate did not appoint a conference committee when they met Friday night; only the House did. As a result, the bill is at a stalemate.

What happens next if the Senate doesn’t appoint anyone to a conference committee?

The House can back down and decide to accept the Senate’s version. But if the two sides can’t come to an agreement, the bill dies.

That’s just one of the bills in this police reform package. Where are the others?

The House Judiciary Committee turned the Senate’s package into three bills.

One bill requires all Maryland law enforcement to use body cameras by 2025. It also restricts when officers can use lethal force. The House passed this bill Friday evening, so it now goes back to the Senate, which needs to approve the amendments.

The other two bills still face final votes in the House before they go back to the Senate. One of these creates a new unit in the Attorney General’s Office to investigate deaths caused by police officers. The other bill restricts how and when officers can use no-knock warrants. It also makes police misconduct complaints subject to public records requests.

The legislature adjourns for the year in eight days. Do you think these bills will pass?

It's impossible to predict. A lot can happen in eight days in Annapolis.

But it’s clear that legislative leaders want to see these police reform bills succeed.

The bill altering police discipline procedures — the one that stirred so much controversy in the Senate — was sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne Jones. And when Republicans tried to delay it last week, Senate President Bill Ferguson spoke from the dais to explain why it needs to move forward.

“Hundreds of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Marylanders walked in the street this summer, who are outraged because they wanted to see the restoration of accountability, trust and transparency,” Ferguson said. “We have the opportunity to get there. We will move forward one step at a time.”

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
WYPR's Morning Edition news anchor Ashley Sterner serves up the latest Maryland news and weather every weekday morning, delightfully interspersed with the occasional snarky comment.
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