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At literal last minute, Md. revises police reform, addresses gun crimes

The Maryland House of Delegates gathers in Annapolis. (Brian Witte/AP)

On the last day of its 90-day legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly waited until literally the last minute to revise last year’s police reform legislation — and pass another bill designed to address escalating crime that left Republicans fuming.

With one minute before midnight Monday, the House of Delegates voted 106-9 to approve a bill that, among other provisions, creates a trial board for state police agencies and prohibits collective bargaining from affecting the disciplinary process.

The House removed a provision included in the Senate bill that would have delayed the creation of police accountability boards from July to October. Those boards, a key part of the package House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) had sponsored last year, are intended to give residents a role in the review and investigation of police-misconduct allegations.

The proposed delay “was not going to work for the speaker,” House Judiciary Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) said. “We feel that is pretty important.”

The revisions to the 2021 police accountability law come as residents and criminal justice activists encounter numerous obstacles from local governments implementing the sweeping reforms.

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Senate Judiciary Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) said counties’ leaders have urged lawmakers to push back the boards’ implementation date, and Joanna Silver, co-chair of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, said she worries that some counties are rushing ahead of the July 1 deadline.

But police departments in some Maryland counties have collective bargaining agreements that expire in June, Silver noted, and an extension could allow them time to sign a new agreement and not be required to adhere to the new law.

“We want the boards to be up and running as soon as they can, and we do not want to have any of the unions moving to collective bargaining before the implementation date and therefore delay implementation, but at the same time we see jurisdictions around the state are using the implementation date to rush and limit community involvement in the process,” said Silver, a practicing attorney.

In addition to the policing provisions, the last-gasp bill creates a task force to study how state prosecutors handle cases and requires the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy to collect and publish data about the sentences handed down in circuit courts across the state.

Some criminal justice activists had questioned whether the 2021 package went far enough to provide transparency and oversight of policing. Silver said she was very pleased to see the state expand the scope of the complaints that the administrative charging committee can consider.

“We wanted to ensure that any misconduct that involves a police officer would be heard by the administrative charging committee regardless of where the complaint originated,” she said.

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Smith said the proposed delay was in part because the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission has not promulgated the regulations, which is creating problems for counties trying to adhere to the law.

“We were trying to tidy up and clarify some of the police reforms,” Smith said. “Things that were oversights.”

Also late Monday, the legislature passed a separate measure that creates a mechanism for tracking statewide gun crime data. The bill, originally passed in the Senate, includes a pair of Republican priorities, classifying theft of a firearm as a felony and increasing penalties for using a gun during a drug deal. The House stripped the bill of the tougher penalties and kept the provisions to track the gun crime data and to include what is known as an interlocutory appeal, a legal maneuver that helps in prosecuting gun cases.

Republicans objected to the removal of what they called the strongest provisions to address violent crime. Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) called it “outrageous.”

The Senate did not pass Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) crime package, which included increased penalties for repeat violent offenders. Hough called it ironic that the House had passed an earlier bill that imposes new security restrictions on gun dealers but “didn’t find it important to punish the people who actually steal the firearms.”

Smith said Hogan and the Democratic-controlled legislature had “fundamental differences” on how to address crime. The General Assembly, Smith said, was focused on a long- and short-term strategy that included a substantial investment in a Job Corps program in Baltimore; required the state corrections department, which runs the Baltimore city jail, to notify the city police department when someone is released pretrial; and increased grant funding to local governments for warrant apprehension.

Hours before the session ended, Hogan said he was “frustrated” the General Assembly did not pass a bill that imposed “tougher sentences for people who shoot people.”

“I don’t know how they are going to explain that to the voters,” he said. “That’s for them to figure it out.”