“When is enough enough?” Jones asked, tears streaming down her face. “How many more bodies? . . . Please! At what point are you going to take us seriously? All we’re asking for, and begging for, is accountability.”
It has been a familiar demand in Annapolis and in statehouses across the country since Michael Brown, a black teenager, was gunned down in 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. In part because of staunch opposition to police overhaul bills from the Fraternal Order of Police, those appeals have largely gone unanswered.
Now, after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was pinned to the ground for at least eight minutes by a Minneapolis police officer, lawmakers across the country are moving swiftly to respond to calls for change.
In New York, they repealed a law that made police officers’ personnel records exempt from the public. In Houston, they banned chokeholds. In Washington, D.C., they required that officers’ names and body-camera footage be released within 72 hours of an act of violence.
In Maryland, state House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) wrote a letter from the House Democratic caucus to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) urging him to limit when state law enforcement agencies can use lethal force. Jones, who has called the criminal justice system “broken,” also convened a work group that will begin reviewing policing practices Tuesday and is promising to present a comprehensive restructuring package to the General Assembly in January.
“Given what is happening nationally, the time is ripe to get it right,” Jones said.
State Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) declined to comment. State Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), whom Ferguson named to chair the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee this year, said he agrees that action is needed but doesn’t think any further study is warranted.
“We possess all the requisite data points and information we need to make progress,” said Smith, who is calling for a ban on chokeholds, a required warning by police before shooting, and public access to complaint and investigation records. “What we have lacked is the political will to go far enough.”
Although Democrats have long held a supermajority in the General Assembly, the legislature’s leadership has undergone a profound shift in the past year, with a younger, more liberal and more diverse set of lawmakers taking roles long held by older, more centrist white men.
Many members of the Democratic caucus, some of whom are black or are relatively new to the legislature, have criticized previous leaders for inaction on launching civilian review boards and allowing public access to complaints and investigations.
Now, with the galvanizing force of the Black Lives Matter movement, advocates and lawmakers who have long pushed for restructuring say they are hopeful that real change will be enacted.
But they also remain skeptical, saying political will could wane — and lobbying from the police union could intensify — by the time the legislature reconvenes in January.
“The Democratic Party stronghold that we have in Maryland has become masters at pushing forward symbolic gestures that obscure substantive policy,” said Dayvon Love, co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore-based grass-roots think tank promoting black empowerment. “We’re going to have to make them do it.”
'I don't have clean hands'
After riots broke out in Baltimore over Gray’s death in 2015, then-House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who died in 2019, and then-Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who stepped down earlier this year, formed a work group to review police training, recruitment and protections.
The effort included an examination of the country’s oldest Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — which the union says provides crucial safeguards to officers whose jobs often put them in danger and which advocates say shields police from accountability.
The group came up with 40 recommendations and came to a consensus on 23 of them, said Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore City), who co-chaired the panel with then-state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore City).
Lawmakers the next year made some changes to the complaint process, including a reduction in the amount of time an officer accused of misconduct has to obtain an attorney and an increase in the amount of time a person has to file a complaint.
They also formed a board to recommend use-of-force standards to police agencies, imposed mandatory psychological evaluations for officers involved in serious incidents and opened administrative hearings to the public.
Advocates labeled the changes largely cosmetic and said the bill’s passage has stymied the chance for tougher changes. Some lawmakers who participated on the work group say they, too, were seeking more urgent action.
“I don’t know if leadership felt like there was a big problem,” said a member of the panel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the process candidly. “I think people thought [police misconduct] was only a problem in certain neighborhoods. That was the sentiment I got.”
Anderson countered that the panel did extensive work, attending police training facilities and trial boards and listening to testimony on best practices from across the state and around the country.
But since the videotaped recording of Floyd’s final moments sparked nationwide protests and demands for change, several of Maryland’s newly ascendant legislative leaders have said the 2016 changes were insufficient.
“We’ve made some progress, but we’ve never gone quite far enough,” Smith said. “It is far past time for us to reflect upon why it has taken the murder of yet another precious black soul in 2020 to muster the political will to push for meaningful reform.”
Toni Holness, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, noted that Smith’s proposal is made up of bills that have languished for years. Among the ones that failed in this year’s session was “Anton’s Law,” a measure that would make complaints about police shootings public, clarify when officers can use force and strike language in the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights that says only sworn officers can interview each other after use-of-force incidents.
“What would be original would be actually passing them,” Holness said of the measures. “That’s what we want to see.”
This year, Smith blamed late-filed bills and an abbreviated session for his committee for not passing a single police restructuring bill. Still, he shares the blame for not pushing harder to get legislation approved in the past.
“I don’t have clean hands,” he said. “It is a lesson to be learned for all of us, myself included.”
Examining the bill of rights
Lawmakers and advocates who have worked for years on overhauls say their biggest obstacle has been the Fraternal Order of Police, a union that has built strong ties with lawmakers and worked closely with Democrats on legislation.
“We have consistently said we would like a seat at the table,” said Vince Canales, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police. “If a bill didn’t move forward, I believe that was based on the merits of our arguments. . . . There were some that needed work to be more fair and equitable.”
Holness said the police union, along with the chiefs and sheriffs associations, have dominated past discussions.
At the 2016 hearing where Jones made her plea, lobbyist Frank Boston, who represents the Fraternal Order of Police, opened his remarks to the panel by saying: “There is no problem.”
When lawmakers objected, Boston quickly clarified to say there is “no problem” with the protections given to officers under their bill of rights.
State Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), who served on the House Judiciary Committee before she was elected to the Senate, said many top Democrats have been more concerned about appearing soft on crime, opting to side with the union when calls for reform were made instead of making impactful change.
She described the 2016 law as “a minor appeasement to placate victims and advocates, symbol over substance.”
Carter and Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) proposed the much more expansive Anton’s Law in 2019, following the 2018 death of 19-year-old Anton Black in police custody on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The bill did not receive a vote that year or the next.
Now, Carter and Acevero are pushing to repeal the officers’ bill of rights entirely, arguing that its protections for officers impede accountability and transparency.
Canales declined to comment on the specific proposals, saying, “There are some valid issues on the table, but we have to advocate for the 90 percent of the officers that are doing good work.”
Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s) said he hopes that calls for substantive reforms are answered in the wake of Floyd’s death and lead to a shift in culture.
“Trust at this point isn’t going to come from training, it’s going to come from mandated oversight and transparency,” said Barron, who has introduced a public disclosure bill three times since 2016.
That bill, too, has never received a committee vote.