The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland moves toward repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights

Youth-led demonstrators in Baltimore protest the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Youth-led demonstrators in Baltimore protest the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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Maryland is moving toward repealing its far-reaching law that codifies workplace protections for police officers accused of misconduct, an action that no other state with a Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights has taken in nearly half a century.

But with less than two weeks before lawmakers leave Annapolis for the close of their 90-day legislative session, questions remain over what will replace the state statute.

Social justice advocates say the current proposal does not go far enough to remove the special protections officers currently have under the bill of rights or to give the community a larger role in the police discipline process.

Meanwhile, Republicans criticized the measure, arguing that it creates a more bureaucratic system that is unfair to officers.

The House legislation creates a new process for disciplining officers, forming an administrative charging committee that would decide whether an officer should be internally disciplined and what type of discipline should be given. A police chief could not impose a lower discipline than what the committee recommends.

Criminal justice experts have described Maryland’s police bill of rights, which was enacted in 1974 and is the oldest in the United States, as one of the “worst” in the country because it contains a provision that makes it impossible for civilians to investigate an officer’s conduct. The House bill would give civilians participation in the process.

The measure is part of a larger police overhaul package that Maryland lawmakers have been crafting since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody last summer sparked nationwide calls to overhaul policing.

But the measure, which was introduced on the Senate floor on Wednesday, is much different from what the House originally proposed, leaving questions about what the overall package will look like as the legislative session begins to wrap up.

Over the past month, the Senate and the House have passed vastly different legislative packages to address how officers do their jobs, how they are trained and how officers accused of misconduct are investigated.

The Senate approved nine measures, the majority of which were passed with a bipartisan vote. The House focused on an omnibus bill, sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), that, in addition to the repeal of the bill of rights, would establish a statewide use of force policy that bans chokeholds and restricts no-knock warrants, change the state’s public information act to make some complaints against officers accessible to the public, 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.

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The Senate bills are waiting to be taken up by the House Judiciary Committee. The intense debate in the Senate committee, which lasted more than eight hours, was the first public airing of the House bill.

Some of the debate centered on whether an officer should have to tell a motorist during a traffic stop his or her badge number, if a bystander has the right to record video of a police interaction, and whether an officer should have to take an implicit bias test.

The Senate committee approved the bill late Tuesday night in a 7-to-4 vote, along party lines. The measure was a pared-down version of the bill that initially passed the House. Instead of an omnibus bill, the bill was amended to largely address the police bill of rights. The measure as amended also would create a scholarship program for officers, raise the civil liability limit on police-related lawsuits to $890,000 and allow for the forfeiture of a convicted officer’s pension.

Sixteen amendments were added to the bill, which means the differences probably will have to get hammered out in a conference committee.

The Senate committee added a police union representative to the charging committee, a position that was not in the House bill, which had a committee largely filled with civilians. The investigation would still be handled by the police.

Social justice advocates have long worried that the changes passed by the General Assembly this year would not be substantive. They say they continue to remain hopeful on the creation of a use-of-force standard and more transparency in obtaining records of police complaints.

“It’s barely a repeal,” said Yanet Amanuel, public policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “It’s a smidgen better than the current [bill of rights] . . . From the beginning our focus on [the bill of rights] was about police policing themselves and transferring the control to the hands of the community.”

Republicans lashed out at their Democratic colleagues, arguing that they created a “perfect mess.”

“If the main point of the legislation, as we were told at the beginning, was to empower [police] chiefs to remove bad police officers, if you look at the legislation the administrative charging committee would be the most powerful committee on there, and the chief doesn’t have an appointment on there; the chief has to do what the administrative charging committee tells them,” said Senate Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick), who is also a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. “It’s bad for police who want a simple and fair process, and it’s bad for the public that wants to remove officers.”

Meanwhile, Clyde Boatwright, the president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, said Wednesday that he can “live with” the changes made to the bill of rights.

“We do have a due-process mechanism in place,” he said.

He said a big concern from Tuesday’s debate was on the provision that would allow veteran officers who are convicted of certain crimes to lose their pensions.

“If you are now attacking the pensions of police officers who have worked for their pensions . . . that is going to be a huge problem for our profession,” he said. “I know there will be veteran officers who have said they will retire before these reforms go into effect.”

Boatwright said the union’s next battle will be over the use-of-force standard.

Lawmakers are expected to decide if police officers in Maryland should 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. The Senate and the House differed on when nonlethal use of force should be used. The House said such use of force should only occur when “necessary” and “proportional,” a stricter requirement than the state’s current legal standard of “objectively reasonable.”

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