The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland passed sweeping laws to change police discipline. Now it’s stumbling on implementation, activists say.

Only a handful of counties have sought community input on how to set up new civilian oversight boards

Members of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition and other groups rally at the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office in December, seeking more investigation of the police killing of 24-year-old Kwamena Ocran in Gaithersburg. ( Courtesy of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition)

The consensus at the public hearing was clear: All 30 speakers — activists, union leaders, representatives of prayer circles, students and concerned citizens — did not like how the county was planning to implement changes to police discipline.

“I recognize the frustration that more input wasn’t provided in the bill,” Montgomery County Council President Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) said with a tone of resignation at the end of the Zoom hearing in January. “I can assure that your voices have been heard.”

Across Maryland, criminal justice activists have been trying to rally community members to scrutinize how their local government is implementing the sweeping changes to police accountability that were put in place following the killing of George Floyd — with varying degrees of success.

These changes are set to take effect July 1, but as of mid-February, only a handful of counties had passed the necessary legislation to establish the new civilian oversight boards that will be charged with reviewing instances of police misconduct against civilians. More than a dozen jurisdictions had yet to introduce any proposals for implementation and of those that have, virtually all were criticized by activists for initially or continually neglecting community input and inserting regulatory provisions that go against the “spirit” of the reforms.

Their renewed push for attention comes at a time when Republican leaders, including Gov. Larry Hogan (R), have blamed soaring crime rates on Democratic-led efforts to overhaul policing.

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“[The legislative changes] have the potential to be a major vehicle in changing the way that this branch of local government has operated for forever,” said Carlean Ponder, co-chairperson of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, a criminal justice activist group in Montgomery. But that potential hinges on how it is implemented, she said.

Since the 1970s, Maryland law has stated that police officers accused of misconduct, including the excessive use of force, can only be investigated by fellow officers — not civilians. Lawmakers in Annapolis voted last spring to repeal a powerful state bill that gave officers this special workplace protection, granting civilians a role in deciding police discipline matters for the first time. The Maryland Police Accountability Act requires counties to assemble Police Accountability Boards (PAB) and Administrative Charging Committees (ACC) where civilians will have a role in reviewing and investigating allegations of police misconduct, and in certain cases, in meting out administrative repercussions.

But those who helped to lead the push for this change — many of whom say they represent Black and Latino communities that have been subject to over-policing — argue that they’ve been kept out of drafting the local regulations for both bodies, including key details such as application timelines and membership qualifications. County officials, they say, are consulting police leaders on details of their bills months before they’re inviting community members to participate.

“We’ve been the victim of a sneak game,” Beverly John, a Prince George’s County activist, said at an activist town hall held Thursday evening over the issue of implementing the PAB.

Activists in the majority-Black county were caught off guard when County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) in January tweeted out an invitation for people to apply for the new PAB within a one-week deadline. At the time, no public discussion had been held on how the board would be structured, who would be eligible to serve or what county resources the board would have access to, John said. Officials also hadn’t addressed how the new board would affect the county’s existing citizen complaint oversight panel. Alsobrooks later extended the application deadline but has yet to unveil details of how the board would operate.

Anthony McAuliffe, deputy director of communication for Prince George’s, said that while applications for the PAB have closed — 95 people in the county of 960,000 applied — there will still be opportunities for the public to weigh in on how it operates when lawmakers introduce the legislation needed to formally establish the board.

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In Howard County, officials initially proposed having two law enforcement officers sit as ex officio members on the PAB and binding members of the board to a code of confidentiality. A group of longtime residents organized under the Police Accountability Task Force of Howard County pushed back, successfully persuading lawmakers to scrap both provisions.

In Montgomery, an initial proposal for the PAB — which was released in December and received significant backlash — said members would need to have experience “managing or evaluating the management of a law enforcement agency; evaluating citizen complaints against a police officer; or in personnel disciplinary proceedings.” Ponder, of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, said this description limited possible candidates to civilians with close links to law enforcement agencies, contradicting the original intent of the state law.

“It read like we were going to replicate the internal affairs process,” she said, “Except this time, elected officials were going to slap on a label that said ‘public.' ”

After the outcry, lawmakers promised to change the eligibility guidelines, but they have yet to settle on precisely what they will be. The council’s public safety commission recently agreed to several other recommendations from the coalition, including expanding the PAB from 5 to 9 members, and allowing immigrants and people with criminal records to serve on the board.

During a committee work session this week, activists, along with County Council member Will Jawando (D), pushed to bar former law enforcement officers from being allowed to sit on the board. Even if former officers were able to objectively review misconduct cases, the “appearance” of any conflicts of interest could compromise the trust that community members have in the board’s independence, they said. In response to suggestions that former officers might have relevant expertise in disciplinary matters, activists noted that the PAB was conceptualized as a citizen-led oversight body and that active-duty officers are involved in other aspects of the disciplinary process.

“This [bill] is a very important component of rebuilding the trust that communities of color, immigrant communities have with the police,” Jawando, an outspoken advocate for changes to policing, said in an interview. “It has to be done properly.”

Others, however, said the county should not eliminate entire groups of people from being able to serve on the board. All three members of the public safety committee — Albornoz and council members Sidney Katz (D-District 3) and Tom Hucker (D-District 5) — said they preferred to keep eligibility guidelines broad and allow officials to select the best candidates from the applicant pool. Lee Holland, president of the county’s police union, said that if community members want the board to be inclusive, they have to agree to do so “on all fronts,” including by allowing former law enforcement officers to apply.

“We are not scared at all of having a civilian determine our fate,” Holland said in an interview. “But the board has to be fair for everyone, for the civilians as well as for the police officers. … These cases determine the future of officers’ livelihoods.”

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The council has set an internal deadline of March 31 to approve legislation setting up the new oversight boards, giving the executive branch two months to find and appoint members. But officials say part of the challenge in meeting that deadline is that the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission is still debating statewide regulations for how these boards should function.

“We’re really flying in the dark here on how to successfully complete this process,” said Earl Stoddard, assistant chief administrative officer to County Executive Marc Elrich (D).

The council is expected to resume discussion of the legislation on March 1.