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Maryland Legislature Sends Police Reform Package To Governor

Rachel Baye
Tiana Boardman, a law student at the University of Baltimore, marches in a protest for police reform in June 2020.

The Maryland General Assembly has passed landmark police reform legislation and sent it to Governor Larry Hogan, just five days before lawmakers adjourn for the year. WYPR state politics reporter joins Nathan Sterner to walk through the final package.

At the core of lawmakers’ police reform efforts this year has been a question of what to do about the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which governs police discipline. How does the legislation handle this law?

Lawmakers replaced the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights with another discipline process.

It’s a little complicated, but this is the gist:

If you file a complaint accusing an officer of misconduct, your complaint is investigated by the local law enforcement agency. The results of that investigation go to a “charging committee,” which every county must establish and which is primarily made up of civilians.

The charging committee reviews the investigation and other evidence, including body camera footage, and may interview the officer. Then it issues an opinion and, if it finds the officer did something wrong, recommends discipline based on a matrix of what would be appropriate in the situation.

The police chief makes the final call on discipline. But if the officer disagrees with the finding, it goes to a trial board, made up of a civilian, a police officer and an administrative law judge.

The officer can appeal the trial board’s decision to a court.

Overseeing the whole process is a Police Accountability Board, which, again, every county must establish.

What do some of the other bills in this package do?

One bill creates a new unit in the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate when a police officer kills someone.

One bill says police may only use a no-knock warrant if a typical warrant would endanger the life or safety of the police officer or another person, and only between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. That bill also makes complaints against police public records.

The last bill requires all police statewide to use body cameras by July 2025.

This bill was particularly controversial in the Senate Wednesday — debate lasted three hours and included a filibuster attempt by Republicans — because of new rules about when police can use lethal force.

What was so controversial about it?

The final version of the bill says an officer may not use force “unless under the totality of the circumstances, the force is necessary and proportional to prevent an imminent threat of physical injury” or to fulfill a “legitimate” police objective.

Republicans said this is a new standard that will require police to relearn everything they have been taught, and therefore it would be really easy for an officer to unintentionally end up committing a crime.

“We are basically trying to tell police officers, you're guilty until proven innocent when you use force,” said Sen. Justin Ready, a Republican from Carroll County. “You better be real careful because if you were wrong, if you use force ... you could be serving time in jail when you really, honestly, were trying your very best to do the right thing, but had to make a split-second decision.”

Ready and a few other Republicans argued that this change is going to cause crime to rise as officers choose to be less active at enforcing the laws.

Did supporters of the bill offer counter arguments?

There were quite a few. One came from Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Democrat whose district straddles Baltimore City and Baltimore County. He reminded his colleagues that the reason they are considering police reform stems from incidents like the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015.

“Honestly, the standard that we currently have across the United States is just not working,” Sydnor said. “I believe what we're attempting to do is move away from the focus of what the officers beliefs are, to where the focus should be, which are the officers’ actions.”

Has the governor said whether he will sign these bills?

His spokeswoman said he will carefully review the bills when they reach his desk.

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