Maryland’s ambitious proposals to improve police training and expand officer oversight drew strong praise and pointed criticism Tuesday at a hearing of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Delegates.
Lobbyists and lawyers for the police union called the bills unnecessary and in some cases misguided, and said some of the changes would be unfair to police officers who have done nothing wrong.
Supporters of the bills said they would help prevent abuses of the type that allegedly led to the death of Freddie Gray in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, while expanding citizen opportunities to lodge misconduct complaints against police.
“I’m really hoping this is a start for changing the culture of law enforcement in Maryland and ending police brutality and police misconduct,” said Larry Stafford Jr., executive director of the advocacy group Progressive Maryland. “We have an opportunity to lead the nation in taking on police misconduct and abuse.”
The hearing room was packed with witnesses and onlookers, including family members of people killed by police officers, and Baltimore Police Officer William G. Porter, one of six officers charged in the Gray case. The overflow crowd watched a live video feed in a separate room.
The sweeping legislation being considered by the General Assembly includes 21 recommendations by the Public Safety and Policing Work Group, a panel created by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) after riots erupted in Baltimore last year following Gray’s funeral.
The proposals include giving officers periodic psychological evaluations, allowing the public to attend police trial boards, and providing residents more time to file brutality complaints, extending the window from 90 days to 366 days.
The proposals also call for reducing the “10-day rule,” the amount of time given to officers accused of misconduct before they are required to cooperate with an internal investigation, to five days.
“I think this is an excellent way for us to be a role model for the rest of the country in dealing with the relationship between law enforcement and our communities,” Busch said Tuesday.
The legislation would create an independent Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission that would focus on setting standards and training for all police agencies. The group would be required to develop anti-discrimination and use of force de-escalation training for all officers. It would also set up a confidential early intervention policy for officers who receive three or more citizen complaints within a 12-month period.
The measures also would require annual reporting of “serious” officer-involved incidents, the number of officers disciplined and the type of discipline given.
Under the bills, a hearing board that investigates brutality complaints would consist of three members from another law enforcement agency — one person chosen by the chief, one by the officer against whom the complaint is filed and one person that the chief and the police officer agree on.
During the hearing, police supporters objected to a provision in one bill that would allow citizens with no law enforcement experience to sit on administrative hearing boards.
Frank Boston III, a lobbyist for the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, said that no changes are necessary to the “10-day rule” or any other aspect of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) testified in support of legislation that would double the amount of time, from 30 days to 60 days, that a police chief has to review the recommendation of a hearing board.
She also spoke in favor of separate legislation that would allow police chiefs to suspend without pay officers charged with misdemeanors that carry sentences of more than one year. Rawlings-Blake pointed to a 2014 case in which a Baltimore officer repeatedly punched a man at a bus stop and said, contrary to video evidence, that the man had attacked him first.
“The public is right to be outraged that the city has to continue to pay a police officer that not only brutally assaulted someone but then lied about it,” she said.
Herbert R. Weiner, an attorney for the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, countered that the bill would diminish due-process rights for police and cause financial duress to potentially innocent officers.
“Sometimes when you go to court, you don’t get convicted,” Weiner said. “We owe it to these dedicated law enforcement officers who are making these decisions in good faith not to put the cart before the horse.”
The surprise appearance of Porter at the hearing unnerved some people in the room whose families have been affected by police violence, said Garland Nixon, a former police officer who works on law enforcement accountability issues and is a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
“The mothers . . . saw it as a slap in the face,” Nixon said.
But Vince Canales, the president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, said Porter — who did not speak at the hearing — had the right to be there. “He’s a citizen,” he said, “and should be afforded the opportunity to watch the process at work.”
Porter was the first officer to face trial; his case ended with a hung jury in December. He faces a second trial in June.