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Policing debate exposes raw racial divides: ‘We don’t have all the same experiences.’

Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) discussed her father, son and brother's racially-charged experiences during a debate on a police reform bill on March 10. (Video: Maryland General Assembly)

The Republican lawmakers were concerned the bill would keep police from doing their jobs.

Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary was worried about her son.

During a late-night floor session on Wednesday, White Republicans in the Maryland House of Delegates offered multiple amendments to a sweeping police-reform bill, saying officers must be able to respond to potentially dangerous situations without worrying about being second-guessed.

Police should be able to use whatever force another officer likely would in a similar circumstance, they argued, and should not have to exhaust all options before using lethal force, as the bill proposed.

Atterbeary, a 45-year-old Black Democrat from Howard County, rose each time to reply that police must be held to a higher standard, using force only when absolutely necessary. Anything else, she said, could jeopardize young Black and Brown men like the family members she loves.

“This is not about being anti-police,” Atterbeary said, noting that her grandmother was the first Black woman to serve as sheriff in a town outside of Detroit.

She spoke of her young son, who looks older than his nine years, and who she has already warned about the need to be careful around police.

“I worry every day, literally I worry, about how he is going to be treated when he goes out into society, that he is going to be misjudged by his age and that people will be intimidated by his size and that people will be scared and treat him differently because he is Black,” she said, placing emphasis on her final words.

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel), who is White, responded to Atterbeary in equally personal terms. He noted that he, too, has a young son — and acknowledged a crucial difference.

“It’s a conversation I know that I won’t have to have with my son,” he said of Atterbeary’s talks with her child. “I don’t know what it feels like to be fearful or wary of a police officer. In my experience they have always been the one you go to for help, the hero that puts his or her life on the line.

“I know that my experience is not everyone in this room’s experience,” he added.

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The debate over the omnibus policing bill, which was approved Thursday evening, has laid bare the different realities of policymakers weighing how to hold police officers accountable. It’s a conversation that has gained momentum in new ways since the viral video of the death of George Floyd in police custody 10 months ago. At vigils, and protests, in local board meetings and legislative chambers, elected leaders are speaking out about their own experiences with police — or the experiences of loved ones.

Atterbeary, who chaired a House work group on reimagining policing in Maryland, said the use-of-force standard and other provisions in the bill sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore) are in response to the experiences of Black and Brown residents in Maryland and across the country.

She shared stories Wednesday night about her father, driving home from work in Montgomery County, being racially profiled and questioned about driving a “nice” car. And about her brother, who was forced to lie face down on the pavement around the corner from their Howard County home while officers asked why he was in the neighborhood. Her family tried to protect her from these stories, Atterbeary told her colleagues, sharing them only after Floyd was killed.

“We don’t have all the same experiences,” Atterbeary said Wednesday night, her voice clear and strong through her mask in the hushed chamber. “This is the experience of Black and Brown people in this country.”

Maryland House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R) discussed his thoughts on the state’s police reform bill on March 11. (Video: Maryland General Assembly)

Kipke said in his floor speech that he supports some aspects of the police accountability bills that have gained traction in the Democratic-majority legislature this session. But there are other pieces, he said, that could have unintended consequences, including impeding officers from doing their jobs.

“Opposition to this bill as it’s currently drafted is not based on racism,” he said, adding that he wanted to respond to posts made by activists on social media. “Police reform is something everyone in this chamber cares about and wants to advance. . . . I just think this should be changed a bit, come to the center.”

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The House bill now heads to the Senate, which has already sent its own nine-bill policing package to the House. There will likely be intense debate over reconciling the differences.

Under the House legislation, police officers in Maryland would be required to prioritize de-escalation tactics, use force only when necessary and use lethal force only as a last resort — to save lives or to prevent serious injury.

Any nonlethal use of force would have to be viewed as necessary and proportional, a stricter requirement than the state’s current legal standard of “objectively reasonable.”

Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Alleghany), whose father was a police officer, told his colleagues on Wednesday that he has relatives and friends who have had to use their police weapons in the line of duty and has watched the emotional toll it took on them.

All officers want, he said, is to be able to “do their jobs and be able to return home at night.” He pressed for an amendment that would have removed language that said an officer had to exhaust all other options before using lethal force.

Del. Wayne A. Hartman (R-Wicomico) supported the amendment, saying officers “are often forced into making split-second judgments, decisions in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.”

“This standard is unrealistic, and it’s unfair,” Hartman said. “And to have that person second-guessed in that split-second decision is dangerous, not only for that person but for the community.”

Buckel said he worried about officers being subjected to criminal charges, which the bill would impose if an officer violates the use-of-force standard in a way that causes death or serious injury.

“[Officers] are not perfect, and they would not tell you that they are perfect,” Buckel said. “What I have found, not without fail, but almost without fail, [is] that the men and women who serve us are trying to do their damn best.”

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The House bill also would require an officer to intervene if another officer violates the use-of-force standard. It would ban chokeholds, repeal the powerful Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, and change the state’s public information act to make some police complaints accessible to the public.

In addition, the measure would restrict the use of no-knock warrants and create an independent investigative unit to take the lead on examining any police-involved shooting or other police-involved incident in which someone died or was seriously injured.

The amendments Republicans proposed Wednesday would, among other things, strike a provision that says search warrants can be executed only between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.; prohibit the release of records about police misconduct complaints that were not upheld; and ensure that only U.S. citizens who have never been convicted and charged with a serious crime may serve on committees that have a role in the police discipline procedures.

Each amendment failed.

While Republicans argued that the bill went too far, at least one Democrat — Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) protested that it did not go far enough.

He introduced amendments that would allow local jurisdictions to have community oversight over disciplining police, require the attorney general to gather information about ties to white nationalism and policing and remove school resource officers from public schools.

Each of Acevero’s amendments was backed by the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability, a group of 90 organizations that has been calling for police accountability and transparency.

They failed as well.

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