THOUGH NOT ALL MEMBERS of the Prince George's County police department fully appreciate the effort, two worthy local improvements to Maryland's police bill of rights are scheduled for an important vote today. The amendments have been proposed by County Executive Winfield M. Kelly and are subject to approval by the county's delegation to the General Assembly and then by the full legislature. The new provisions would improve the handling of certain accusations against police officers by changing some trial board procedures.
One amendment would seat a civilian on any police trial board (officially known as administrative hearings) involving allegations of "harassment," "excessive use of force" or language "denying the dignity of individuals." This change from a strictly internal trial board made up of police officers to a five-member panel with one civilian is a modest proposal that might work to an accused officer's benefit by giving the board's deliberations more public credibility.
Similarly, the second amendment would empower the county Human Relations Commission to investigate complaints of police misconduct brought to it and, if deemed necessary, to request that the chief of police convene a trial board. If the chief did not feel such action was warranted, the commission could ask the county executive for action.
The police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, has had a knee-jerk reaction to the changes. Laney Hester, the organization's president, calls the effort a "political smokescreen." The rank-and-file are "sick and tired of being attacked," he goes on, of "being made a false target to appease people." The argument seems to be that the addition of civilian participation in the process would automatically make life rougher for police officers. Yet Mr. Hester notes parenthetically that police officers are probably tougher on each other than civilians might be in police-conduct matters.
Be that as it may, the point of these slight changes in the rules isn't to toughen up the tribunals or to punish the police foce in general. It is to establish more representative, fairer procedures for protection police and the public from injustices. Sensitive, diligent police officers should welcome the effort, particularly if it contributes even in a small way toward the improvement of police-community relations in the county. Toward that end, responsible members of county's delegation to the General Assembly should approve the amendments and shepherd them to enactment by the legislature.