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Maryland enacts landmark police overhaul, first state to repeal police bill of rights

Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) speaks to a crowd gathered in support of police accountability bills March 4 in Annapolis. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Maryland enacted historic police accountability measures Saturday, becoming the first state to repeal its powerful Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and setting new rules for when police may use force and how they are investigated and disciplined.

The Democratic-majority legislature dealt Republican Gov. Larry Hogan a sharp rebuke, overriding his vetoes of measures that raise the bar for officers to use force; give civilians a role in police discipline for the first time; restrict no-knock warrants; mandate body cameras; and open some allegations of police wrongdoing for public review.

Each bill had been hailed by criminal justice advocates as having the potential to make policing in the state fairer and more transparent. Democrats, who hold large majorities in the legislature, made enacting them a top priority after months of protests over the police-involved deaths of unarmed Black men and women.

“Maryland is leading the nation in transforming our broken policing system,” said House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored the repeal of the officers’ bill of rights and is the first Black person to hold her leadership role. “I am proud to lead the House in overriding the governor’s veto and showing the nation exactly where we stand as a state.”

The changes do not go as far as some social justice advocates had hoped: Discipline will now largely be decided by civilian panels, for example, but police chiefs maintain a role. Some activists wanted the panels to act independently of police.

Still, the legislation imposes one of the strictest police use-of-force standards in the nation, according to experts; requires officers to prioritize de-escalation tactics; and imposes a criminal penalty for those found to have used excessive force.

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During months of debate, many White Republican lawmakers talked about the dangers police officers face on the job and said the bills would remove needed protections. Black Democratic lawmakers responded with passionate and personal arguments for why police officers need better training and said they hoped the legislation would change policing culture and attitudes toward Black people.

“I want to make it out alive, too,” said Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), a former prosecutor who said his size and his skin color have often aroused suspicion from police.

“When I look into that officer’s eyes, they’re not looking at me like I’m another human being,” Wilson said. “At best, I’m a threat. At worst, I’m an animal. That is unacceptable.”

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), who is White, said the raft of bills enacted Saturday, “starts the work.”

“What we are doing today is taking a step forward to creating greater public safety where every single member of our community feels safe,” Ferguson said. “We’re not there, but with this framework, we can get there.”

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Hogan, who is weighing a presidential bid in 2024, has built a varied record on criminal justice issues — championing drug treatment rather than jail time for nonviolent offenses but aggressively seeking tougher penalties for violent crimes. He has refused to free many prisoners approved for release by the state’s parole board and has consistently sided with police unions in matters regarding officer protections and accountability.

In his veto letter Friday night, Hogan wrote that the three policing bills would “erode police morale, community relationships and public confidence.”

“This will result in great damage to police recruitment and retention, posing significant risks to public safety throughout our state,” the letter said.

Also on Saturday, the General Assembly overturned an earlier Hogan veto of a bill that would abolish life sentences without parole for juveniles. The legislation allows prisoners who were juveniles when they were convicted to appeal to a judge for release after they have served 20 years.

In addition, the legislature overrode Hogan’s veto of a prevailing wage law, which expands the circumstances under which construction workers on state projects must be paid the same wage as those on nearby private-sector sites.

Hogan said the parole measure would upend the state’s parole process, cause additional trauma to victims’ families and potentially lead to the release of violent offenders who should remain behind bars.

Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County), the bill sponsor, said the measure was about redemption, arguing that teenagers convicted as adults eventually deserve the right to prove to a judge that they have turned their lives around.

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Hogan allowed two other police accountability bills to become law without his signature. One puts in place a process to return the Baltimore Police Department to local control for the first time since 1860. The other, which takes effect in October, shifts the investigation of police-involved fatalities from local authorities to an independent unit in the state attorney general’s office. It also bans police departments from acquiring surplus military equipment.

“We are on the right side of history,” said Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), who sponsored one of the measures Hogan vetoed and had previously spent a decade pushing for police accountability and transparency laws, to no avail.

The legislature, which is slated to finish its 90-day session on Monday, began overturning Hogan’s vetoes late Friday night, less than two hours after receiving word of the governor’s decisions.

In casting the first of those override votes, Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard), who led a House police restructuring work group over the summer, said the measures were not “anti-police legislation — this is equality and fairness legislation.”

“This was painstakingly put together for Black and Brown folks in our state,” Atterbeary said on the House floor, reciting the names of more than a half dozen Maryland residents who were killed in interactions with police. “It’s time for police officers who don’t follow the proper law to pay the consequences.”

On Saturday, Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) cited the fatal shooting of two men in Takoma Park, Md., on Wednesday by an off-duty Pentagon police officer who was arrested and charged with murder.

“They were shot in the back,” Moon said of the victims, adding that the incident in his suburban district reflects a culture of violence in policing that must be stopped. “Guess what color they were? They were Black. . . . You cannot tell me that we don’t need this legislation. Literally as we were debating this, this happened. It’s unacceptable, this culture of violence.”

Advocates praised the legislature for the measure that provides greater access to police misconduct records. But several gave tepid support to Jones’s bill that replaces the police bill of rights, because it does not give civilians absolute control of the disciplinary process.

“Having repealed it is a net positive, but for there not to be substantive community oversight makes the passage of it disappointing,” said Dayvon Love, the director of public policy for a Baltimore-based think tank promoting Black empowerment.

The transparency bill, which takes effect in October, is named for Anton Black, a 19-year-old college student who died in 2018 after being restrained by an officer in a small police department on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Black’s family spent months trying to get information about his death and has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit. No police officers were charged with wrongdoing.

Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery), who had sponsored legislation in Black’s memory for the last three sessions, said on the floor Saturday that “if we do not have transparency, there can be no accountability, there can be no justice, there can be no community trust.”

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Clyde Boatwright, the president of the state’s Fraternal Order of Police, thanked Hogan in a statement Saturday for “standing with the men and women of law enforcement.”

In an interview, he said his members are most concerned about the new use-of-force standard, which says a police officer may not use force against a person unless “under the totality of the circumstances, the force is necessary and proportional.” Republican critics of the standard have called it too vague and said courts will have to decide what the language means.

Under the statute, an officer who uses excessive force faces criminal penalties, up to 10 years in prison. The bill, which also mandates the use of police body cameras across the state, takes effect in stages. The training and use-of-force limits begin in July 2022, while body cameras are required by different deadlines for different jurisdictions and statewide by July 2025.

House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said he supports police revision but believes the use-of-force standard “goes too far” and, because of the possibility of jail time, could prompt police officers to “step back and stand down in situations where a reasonable person would want them to act.”

Boatwright said the repeal and replacement of the bill of rights still allow officers to have due process, which is what the union sought. The new disciplinary process takes effect July 1, 2022.

Some protections that were in the bill of rights — such as a five-day waiting period before officers accused of wrongdoing must speak to investigators for internal investigations, and the scrubbing of police complaints after a certain period of time — are not included in the replacement statute.

But officers are still guaranteed the right to participate in political activities and work at second jobs.

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The new disciplinary process for officers requires local jurisdictions to create administrative charging committees made up of civilians. Those committees recommend whether an officer should be internally disciplined and what discipline should be applied.

A police chief cannot impose lesser discipline than what the committee recommends.

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Police reform in America

Repeated police misconduct: More than $1.5 billion has been spent to settle claims of police misconduct involving thousands of officers repeatedly accused of wrongdoing. Taxpayers are often in the dark.

Listen: “Broken Doors” is a six-part investigative podcast about how no-knock warrants are deployed in the American justice system — and what happens when accountability is flawed at every level.

Fatal Force: Since 2015, The Washington Post has logged every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States. View our police shooting database.

Fired/Rehired: Police departments have had to take back hundreds of officers who were fired for misconduct and then rehired after arbitration.

Read more coverage on policing in America.