The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s a reason it’s hard to discipline police. It starts with a bill of rights 47 years ago.

Police in Los Angeles aim weapons at demonstrators protesting in May after the death of George Floyd, which has sparked calls for police reform. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

On a Thursday afternoon in March 1973, 50 uniformed officers filed into a red-brick legislative building in the Maryland state capital, armed with stories of being wrongfully disciplined by highhanded police chiefs, gripes of low morale, and threats for lawmakers who didn’t agree to help them.

At stake was the “Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights” — a first-in-the-nation law that codified workplace protections for police officers far beyond those afforded to other government employees. They included giving officers a formal waiting period before they had to cooperate with internal inquiries into police conduct, scrubbing records of complaints brought against officers after a certain period, and ensuring that only fellow officers — not civilians — could investigate them.

It was not a controversial bill at the time, lawmakers say. But its impact would be profound.

Within four years, a Howard County police chief abandoned his call for public disciplinary hearings, citing the new law. A court ruled that an officer who was fired after using excessive force had to be reinstated and given back pay. And in 1977, a human relations commission in Prince George’s County was told it could not investigate police brutality allegations — a decision the county’s only Black council member at the time called a “slap in the face.”

For more than four decades, critics say, the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights has been one of the biggest obstructions to police accountability, hindering investigations and shielding misconduct from public scrutiny. Fifteen other states followed Maryland in adopting a police bill of rights, including Wisconsin, where the police shooting of Jacob Blake this month has sparked protests, during which two more people were shot.

But Maryland’s law goes the furthest in protecting officers, said Sam Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha. While other states allow officers involved in an incident to wait 48 hours or so before they have to cooperate with internal investigators, Maryland lets officers wait five days before being interrogated.

When mayors or police chiefs have wanted to reform their departments, this law has stood in their way.

In 2015, then-Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) explicitly blamed the police bill of rights for blocking the investigation into the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered a spinal cord injury in police custody. Baltimore and Montgomery County have created civilian review boards for their police departments, but police accountability advocates call them toothless because they cannot interrogate officers or request disciplinary action.

Gray’s death prompted some changes to the law, but the Maryland General Assembly, under pressure from the police union, balked at all the changes advocates sought. Now, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has launched a new effort in Annapolis, with some lawmakers calling for the bill of rights to be abolished. On Thursday, members of the House’s police accountability work group publicly questioned whether there is a need for the law, warning dubious police chiefs and sheriffs that “change is a-comin’.”

There is some precedent. In June, over strong objections from police unions, New York state repealed a law that had kept police disciplinary records secret since 1976. But Maryland union leaders say the laws protect police officers’ right to due process while they perform difficult and dangerous jobs.

After the Baltimore City police commissioner indicated to officials in June that he would support amending the law, Michael Davey, an attorney for the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, countered that problems in the department were due to “mismanagement and incompetency,” not the bill of rights.

No such acrimony marked the legislation’s quiet entry into history books 47 years ago. As uniformed officers testified in Annapolis that winter day, “no delegates spoke out against the bill and no witnesses appeared to oppose it,” The Baltimore Sun reported.

The following year, the law enforcement officers’ bill of rights unanimously passed both chambers of the General Assembly.

‘We’re giving them everything’

Police influence soared in the United States in the 1970s, historians say. Crime rates were spiking and President Richard M. Nixon had just been elected after a campaign that promised law and order. Elected officials were reluctant to appear weak on crime.

“There was the sense that criminal justice was too lax, that we were coddling criminals,” said Paul Butler, a Georgetown University law professor. “That’s the atmosphere in 1974.”

J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat and former Maryland attorney general, in the 1970s chaired the state Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, which reviewed the police bill of rights. The law, he remembered, “was not the subject of intense debate.” Bills on gun control and the death penalty divided senators, but not police rights.

“I sensed that it was intended by the police union to give the officer an opportunity to have his position understood, recognizing that being a policeman then and now is a very difficult job,” said Curran, now 90 and the father-in-law of former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D). “I don’t believe it was ever intended to prevent examination of some misconduct.”

The bill was introduced by delegates from Baltimore on behalf of the city’s police union. In the 1970s, such unions had emerged as a major force across the country — a response to poor labor conditions, the anti-police sentiments of the civil rights movement and decisions like the 1966 Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona, which made it illegal for police to question suspects before informing them of their constitutional rights.

News articles from that era describe an unpopular but powerful Baltimore police commissioner , Donald Pomerleau, who willfully fired members of the rank and file, including 55 officers who participated in a 1974 strike. Low-ranking officers reported being unnecessarily investigated, subjected to lie detector tests and accosted at their homes by investigators. Thomas A. Rapanotti, head of the city’s police union, said officers had “no rights for themselves, no defense.”

Police told lawmakers they needed legal protections to keep their jobs and fight crime, and warned that those who blocked the bill would suffer at the polls. After the bill was approved, police unions continued pushing quietly for amendments that strengthened it. For years they faced no opposition.

“There was no organized force against them,” said Walker, the University of Nebraska professor. “No group that said, ‘Hey, we’re giving them everything.’ ”

A ‘slap in the face’

One of the few elected officials who publicly criticized the law in the 1970s was Floyd E. Wilson Jr., the first African American council member in Prince George’s County.

In 1977, following a rash of police violence in Prince George’s, state legislators amended the bill of rights to explicitly block the county’s human relations commission from accessing internal police documents or investigating misconduct. While most council members accepted the state’s decision, Wilson was quoted in news articles calling it “a direct slap in the face.”

“The police cannot operate as some autonomous body,” warned the freshman lawmaker. “This will create a whole lot of animosity, especially in the Black community.”

Back then, the Prince George’s police department was virtually all White, and misconduct was disproportionately committed against African American residents, remembered Wilson Jr., now 85. He said the rules could allow police power to go unchecked.

“There was a different way [police] treated White and Black folks,” he said. “They would put us in jail much quicker than they would ever put them away. … And it was very obvious to me.”

Wilson grew up in the segregated city of Lake Charles, La. As a student at Dillard University in the 1950s, he said, he was driven to the police station by a White bus driver after he and other Black classmates decided to occupy seats beyond those labeled “For Colored Only.” In 1973, after graduate school at Howard University, he was appointed to the council to replace an outgoing member and quickly became a vocal critic of the police department.

After his comments about the bill of rights were publicized, he was stopped by cruisers while driving home from the council’s Upper Marlboro headquarters late one night, he said. The officers, who were White, insulted and heckled him and then brought him to the station. He wasn’t released until then-Prince George’s County Executive Winfield M. “Win” Kelly Jr. called the police chief and ordered him to let him go, his wife recalled.

“I was scared to death,” Wilson Jr. said. Four decades later, he remembers the feeling of sitting alone in the driver’s seat on that dark, empty highway, seeing armed officers walk toward him. He continued to advocate against police brutality for the next 13 years — with limited success.

The U.S. House of Representatives announced a sweeping police reform bill called Justice in Policing Act 2020 on June 8. Here's what you need to know about it. (Video: The Washington Post)

“It was very frustrating because other people treated me like, you know, [this problem] is not happening. It’s all a figment of your imagination,” he said.

Police misconduct has long been a blind spot for elected officials, said Butler, the Georgetown professor. Until recently, White lawmakers even in liberal jurisdictions strongly approved of special protections for police, he said, reflecting a deeper, nationwide chasm in the way White and Black communities see law enforcement. In the wake of Floyd’s killing, and other deaths in police custody captured on video, that may be changing.

The scale of recent protests has been unprecedented, reaching from major cities to small-town America. Local and state officials are demanding changes including budget cuts, bans on chokeholds and other restrictions.

In Maryland, State Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) is leading an effort to abolish the police bill of rights. Carter said she was told by senior legislators in the past that there is an informal understanding with police unions that the bill of rights is not to be touched. A bill she introduced in 2015 to eliminate the waiting period before officers have to cooperate with investigators never advanced out of committee.

“The legislature has refused to step up and govern [the police],” Carter said in an interview. “We’ve let them tell us what we can and cannot do.”

Wilson says Carter’s efforts feel bittersweet. The same problems he struggled against in 1977 are still around in 2020.

Sitting in his home in Bowie one recent afternoon, he went through a stack of old campaign pamphlets, yellowed photos and copies of news articles detailing the passage of the police bill of rights. He squinted at the words, trying to remember what exactly he had said and done — and whether it had been enough.

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