The legislation advancing to the Senate floor, she said, is only a “smidgen” better than the bill of rights, which critics say hinders police investigations and shields wrongdoing from public scrutiny.
“If Maryland cannot bring itself to truly abolish this statute . . . it’s Maryland’s huge shame,” Carter said.
Lawmakers who supported the amendments said they maintain officers’ right to due process while still removing the country’s oldest and strongest police-protection statute. Maryland is one of at least 16 states that have enacted a police bill of rights since 1974. Since then, experts say, no state has repealed one.
Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the legislation delivers on three key points that advocates have long pushed for: citizen involvement in discipline, a single node of accountability and responsibility, and an assurance that police unions can’t develop their own disciplinary policies during the collective bargaining process.
“This bill accomplishes all three of those things,” Smith said.
The measure is part of a package of policing bills that will move to the Senate floor as soon as Friday. They include legislation to develop a statewide use-of-force policy, require body cameras statewide, change the Maryland Public Information Act to make police complaints available to the public, and restore local control of the Baltimore City police department.
“This will probably be one of the most significant . . . transformative reforms in policing that we’ve seen in the General Assembly, potentially ever,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City).
In the House of Delegates, a different police accountability proposal, backed by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), is being discussed in a public safety subcommittee. Jones’s omnibus bill includes the repeal of the bill of rights but also a body camera requirement, a use-of-force policy that bans no-knock warrants except under “exigent circumstances” and bans chokeholds, and other changes.
It is Jones’s top legislative priority, and therefore will pass out of her chamber. But a 90-member coalition of social justice advocacy groups is hoping to make changes before it reaches the House floor, including amendments put forward by Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) and other members of the public safety subcommittee.
Moon said the subcommittee has already approved one of his proposals, which would prohibit local unions from bargaining with their departments over whether officers must use body cameras. Other lawmakers are expected to offer amendments including a higher bar for when officers can use force — changing the standard from “objectively reasonable” to “necessary.”
The subcommittee will bring the changes to the House Judiciary Committee, which will decide how to amend the bill. Any differences in what is passed by the House and the Senate probably will get hammered out in a conference committee.
The final legislative product will be a test of where Maryland stands in the nationwide police reform movement that gained traction after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. It will also signal of whether the younger and more diverse General Assembly has the power to push their leaders — including Jones — to the left.
“It is unfortunate that these issues have divided the House — Democrats from Democrats and Democrats from Republicans — when our ultimate goal is the same: equal treatment for every Marylander, safe communities, and public confidence in law enforcement to respect each of us and our neighbors in the same way,” Jones told the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month.
Amid a wave of social justice protests in Maryland and across the country last year, the coalition of police accountability advocacy groups — which includes the ACLU of Maryland, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, the NAACP and the Concerned Coalition of Mothers, a victims’ rights group made up of mothers who have lost a child to police violence — formed and created five priorities for the 2021 legislative session.
They included broadening the public information law, removing police officers from schools, enacting a statewide use-of-force policy and returning the Baltimore City police department to local control.
At the top of the list was repealing the police bill of rights.
“It is the primary mechanism that blocks the ability for there to be substantive community oversight,” said Dayvon Love, the director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore-based grass-roots think tank promoting Black empowerment.
Love said the coalition never imagined that the legislature would support a repeal, let alone that Jones herself would sponsor a bill and declare it her top legislative priority.
Once that became clear, members of the coalition began looking at what should replace the statute.
They backed Carter’s Senate bill, which would have given police chiefs — rather than a three-person trial board made up of police officers — the power to discipline officers for wrongdoing. The bill also would have allowed local jurisdictions to create civilian oversight panels, which would have the same power as the chief to impose discipline.
During its debate, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee got rid of the proposal to create civilian oversight panels. Instead, it kept a version of the trial boards, renamed the administrative charging committees and now made up of two civilians and an officer. The panels would decide whether an officer should be administratively charged, and recommend discipline.
Sen. Michael A. Jackson (D-Prince George’s), the sponsor of the amendment, is a former sheriff and former president of a local Fraternal Order of Police. While Carter said the bill does not have much value without the option of fully civilian oversight committees, Jackson said public input would come from the addition of civilian members on the charging committee.
His amendment passed 8 to 3.
The committee also added amendments that mirror protections contained in the police bill of rights: allowing disciplinary records to be scrubbed after a certain period and prohibiting complaints against officers from being used as evidence in administrative or court proceedings if the officer was exonerated, or if a disciplinary hearing determined that the charges were unsustained or unfounded.
The police union supported all those changes. It argued strongly against Carter’s proposal to give police chiefs so much power over disciplinary decisions, saying that could result in unfair decisions, including against minority police officers.
At least two members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee said they received calls from Black police officers urging them to reject the bill because of those concerns. The Black officers also asked the committee to approve an amendment allowing officers to participate in political activities and hold second jobs without having to disclose the additional income, said the lawmakers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the behind-the-scenes lobbying. The committee approved those amendments as well.
Jones’s House bill originally called for keeping trial boards — or administrative charging committees — in place, with a mandate that one-third of its members are civilians. She now wants to increase the makeup to two-thirds civilians.
David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, told the Judiciary Committee earlier this month that Jones’s bill is flawed because it leaves the door open for counties “to replicate or be even worse than the current” bill of rights.
The coalition, which strongly opposed most of the changes to Carter’s Senate bill, is hoping to influence the debate in the House. “We’re disappointed . . . but the fight is far from over,” said the ACLU’s public policy director, Caylin Young.
Moon, who served on Jones’s police reform work group last summer and fall, said he understood why many of his colleagues like the idea of giving disciplining power to police chiefs, whom they see as being accountable to elected officials and residents.
“It sets up a very clear line of authority,” he said. But Moon also said there could be a downside, especially in small departments across the state, where there is little oversight of how a chief operates.
“What I’m hearing is that people want an independent and civilian-controlled disciplinary process,” he said, adding that he hopes to figure out a compromise.
Republicans in the Senate have argued that the nature of police work requires special protections for officers who put themselves in danger every day. They have also questioned the need for broad changes in police accountability measures — despite the emergence of protests against police brutality in rural areas last year, and the high-profile 2018 death in police custody of Anton Black, an unarmed 19-year-old, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“I do not believe that the entire state of Maryland is reaching out and screaming about police reform,” said Sen. Jack Bailey (R-St. Mary’s). “This is not a topic in my district.”
When Republicans accused Democrats of simply doing the bidding of social justice advocates, Carter pushed back.
“Year after year after year we have heard from hundreds, hundreds, hundreds of families, impacted families of victims of police brutality who have begged for us to do something,” she said after a recent vote. “This is absolutely not about what advocates want.”
Then Carter continued, calling out the names of family members across the state who have a lost loved one. “I’m legislating for people like Greta Willis, Towanda Jones, Chris Brown, LaToya Holley, Darlene McCain and the family of Anthony Anderson,” she said.