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How Black female lawmakers led Maryland’s historic effort to transform policing

Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones stands in the legislative chamber of the State House in Annapolis. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Maryland’s Senate president told the House speaker that the legislature couldn’t wait any longer. Lawmakers should pass the police-accountability bills quickly, he said, so they’d have enough time to override expected vetoes from Gov. Larry Hogan (R).

But after 10 months of work on the issue and nationwide protests, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) wasn’t having it.

She told Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) that she wanted the policing overhaul finished, too, but she wanted it done right. With a mural of Harriett Tubman on the wall to her left, Jones — the first Black person and first woman to hold her leadership position in Maryland — rose from her wingback chair and told Ferguson to leave her office.

The showdown this month set in motion last-minute changes to legislation that put Maryland at the forefront of the national debate on policing. Among other things, lawmakers gave civilians a greater role in deciding police disciplinary cases, propelling sweeping change in a state long known for its strong officer protections.

Maryland, the first state to enact a Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, on April 10 became the first state to get rid of the decades-old statute, which allowed officers to wait five days before cooperating with internal misconduct inquiries, scrubbed records of complaints after a certain period and ensured that only officers — not civilians — handled complaints about police.

Lawmakers also enacted legislation to mandate body cameras, limit the use of no-knock warrants, impose a statewide use-of-force standard that includes a criminal penalty of up to 10 years in prison for excessive force, and allow certain police complaints to be made public.

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The bills were pushed forward by Jones and by other Black female lawmakers, who used their own experiences and frustration over the killing of George Floyd to demand statutes stronger than Maryland has ever seen — in some cases, among the strictest in the country.

“She is standing in her power, and that is what we need at this time,” Del. Debra M. Davis (D-Charles) said of Jones, who made the police legislation her top priority this year but also pushed to settle a lawsuit by the state’s four historically Black colleges and universities over systemic inequities in higher education and to pass a “Black agenda” that tackled fairness in housing, health and state contracts.

There was also Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), who has long championed changes in policing and was the fervent voice of advocates during marathon meetings of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and on the Senate floor; Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard), vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who led a work group on police accountability and spoke passionately about her worries for her son; and Davis, who chaired a criminal justice committee for the Legislative Black Caucus and told colleagues in early March that she would not accept “anything near the status quo.”

The lawmakers’ rise shows how the 371-year-old legislature — which until two years ago had only White men at the helm of each chamber — has transformed.

Jones said she was not surprised that Black women led the historic effort to overhaul policing.

“Traditionally, we are fighters,” she said. “We speak up when there has been a wrong. . . . We also like to try to get issues resolved — and not just talk about it, but think what can we do about it.”

Each of the women said they have listened to stories from their brothers, fathers or friends about interactions with police — being stopped and questioned for no reason. Some had their own stories too.

When it’s personal and you can empathize — which is not even a strong enough word — it brings a different passion and energy and will to get it done,” Atterbeary said.

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The last time the General Assembly considered broad changes to policing was in 2016, after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody. Only two Black women served on the House Judiciary Committee then. This year, there are eight.

“You can’t move a bill out of committee without the support of Black women, and that’s powerful,” said Del. Wanika B. Fisher (D-Prince George’s), who was elected to the House of Delegates in 2018, and is one of six Black female attorneys on the Judiciary Committee.

A small cadre of Black Democratic lawmakers, five women and three men, met weekly over Zoom last year before the legislative session to help craft proposals for the Black Caucus to carry forward. Several provisions in the policing overhaul, including changing the use-of-force standard from “objectively reasonable” to “necessary and proportional,” were developed during those meetings.

Maryland Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) spoke at a March 2 Maryland General Assembly work session about the importance of changing police-accountability laws. (Video: Maryland General Assembly)

Davis said the group consisted of herself, Carter, Fisher, Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (Baltimore County), Dels. Sandy Bartlett (Anne Arundel) and Charlotte Crutchfield (Montgomery), and the respective chairs at the time of the Prince George’s County and Baltimore City House delegations, Dels. Erek L. Barron and Stephanie M. Smith.

“I always said this was the civil rights movement of our time,” said Davis, who was elected to the House of Delegates in 2018 and participated on a police accountability task force in Prince George’s County 30 years ago. “We knew if we were going to pass meaningful police reform, it was going to be now.”

During a work session last month, she told her colleagues she was “tired of hiding my pain” and urged them to get on board because “we’re going to make some changes, whether you like it or not.”

“We heard from hundreds of people saying ‘Help us, help us. This is what happened to me. This is what happened to my son,’ ” Davis said at the meeting. “ . . . To sit here and act like anything near the status quo is acceptable hurts. I’m going to stop covering up my pain, because it hurts, because people are dead.”

Fisher said she and other Black lawmakers recognize that policing disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities because of the “intensive enforcement in those communities.” She noted that 70 percent of the prison population in Maryland is Black men, higher than any other state in the country.

“I think it really made a difference . . . having Black leaders in Annapolis,” Fisher said. “Not only reflecting our state, but the fact that they have been loosely impacted by this issue, or the community they represent has been impacted by the issue.”

At the start of the work group last summer, Jones told colleagues about her own experience being racially profiled during a traffic stop. She was pulled over for a broken taillight. The officer approached with his hand on his gun holster and, before she knew it, her vehicle was surrounded by four police cars.

The nearly two-hour meeting with Ferguson in her office, Jones said, came toward the end of the 90-day legislative session, when tensions were running high. She said it was rare for her to abruptly end a meeting that way.

But the interaction led to key negotiators returning to iron out details on the bill to replace the officers bill of rights, including deciding who would serve on the administrative charging committees and on trial boards.

Hogan did end up vetoing the policing package, but the Democratic supermajorities in both chambers still had time to override the vetoes the weekend before they adjourned.

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During the debate in the Senate on the bill-of-rights repeal, Carter said it appeared as though those on either side of the debate lived in different worlds.

“The universe that I’m in, people cannot understand a separate set of rules and procedures for this one group of people that has never been held accountable,” she said of police.

Carter, a former House member who has served in the legislature since 2003, was for many years a lone voice calling for police accountability and transparency. This session she read the names of Maryland residents who died after interactions with police on the Senate floor and in committee.

In an interview, Carter said she is convinced that Maryland would not have taken the steps it did this year under its prior leadership — crediting not only Jones, who succeeded House Speaker Michael E. Busch after his death in 2019, but also Ferguson, a young White liberal who took over last year after longtime Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. gave up the gavel.

“It would have never happened,” she said.

While some advocates have not fully embraced the bills that were passed, arguing that they could and should have gone further, Carter said the measures in total are “much stronger than I ever would have believed. . . . For the first time, legislative leadership recognized the need to put Black and Brown people above the institution of law enforcement.”

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