Nearly three decades later, Jones is the most powerful woman in Maryland politics, the first woman and first Black person to serve as speaker of the House of Delegates.
She recalled the long-ago confrontation while explaining her push to overhaul policing in Maryland, including a repeal of the powerful Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
“It just flashed in my head, ‘Oh, my God, my two children,’ ” Jones (D-Baltimore County), 65, said in an interview. “I can see how today these people, members of our community, are killed. Luckily I didn’t make any quick moves that they thought I was a threat to them.”
The agonizing cellphone footage of a Minneapolis police officer fatally pinning George Floyd under his knee in the spring has sparked a new focus on police accountability in Maryland, where reform efforts after the police-involved deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Anton Black in Greensboro, Md., along with others, fell far short of what advocates sought.
Jones charged a legislative work group this summer with proposing the framework for legislation to reshape policing in Maryland. Last week, the panel voted to recommend broad changes in the way police do their jobs, how they are disciplined and investigated, and how they are trained.
Jones said she “absolutely” supports the group’s recommendation to get rid of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a first-in-the-nation statute that since 1974 has allowed officers to wait five days before cooperating with internal misconduct inquiries, scrubbed records of complaints after a certain period and ensured that only officers — not civilians — handle complaints about police.
“I think it’s time,” Jones said of repealing the law, which is strongly supported by the police union and which experts say offers more protections to police than similar statutes in other states. “It’s time to go in a different direction.”
The influential Maryland Fraternal Order of Police has defeated many prior repeal efforts, but the coming legislative session may be different. Jones said she is certain a repeal would pass the House of Delegates, and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said Wednesday that he expects it to be part of a broad package of policing changes approved by the Senate as well.
Jones said she thinks the bill of rights “has been misused,” leading to a public perception “that officers can get away with anything.”
It is unusual for a presiding officer in Annapolis to advocate so openly on issues that have the potential to divide that leader’s caucus. But since taking office about 18 months ago, Jones has moved quickly to exert her power, particularly on issues that deal with race and gender.
She led passage of legislation to force the settlement of a lawsuit between the state and its historically Black colleges and universities over inequitable funding; engineered the removal of a plaque installed by the Maryland Civil War Centennial Commission at the height of the civil rights era; and has suggested that the state get rid of its Civil War-era state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” which celebrates the Confederacy.
“Everyone has a story they can tell,” Jones said. “We’re in the 21st century, and it’s more prevalent. It seems to be becoming the norm — and that shouldn’t be.”
The panel approved dozens of other recommendations along with the abolition of the officers’ bill of rights, including independent investigations of officer-involved killings and a police use-of-force standard that bans chokeholds, restricts no-knock warrants and requires that officers intervene if they see a colleague using unreasonable force. Lawmakers will soon begin drafting bills that will be considered when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Jones said she was disappointed the work group did not propose moving the prosecution of officer-involved killings from the local state’s attorneys office to the state attorney general. Taking the decision out of the hands of local prosecutors, who may have closer connections to the officers, “makes it cleaner and fairer to the community,” she said.
The Fraternal Order of Police has vowed to vigorously oppose some of the work group’s proposals, especially the proposed repeal of the bill of rights. Unions have been inviting lawmakers to lunch briefings and “shoot/don’t shoot” trainings, hoping to highlight for them the dangers and split-second decisions officers face in their work.
Jones noted that the House of Delegates has become younger, more diverse and more liberal-leaning in the past few years, and therefore more amenable to a repeal. She was less sure about the Senate, which also is younger and more diverse but has more centrist lawmakers.
Ferguson, the Senate leader, called repealing the statute “a necessary step to rebuilding community trust” but said a new use-of-force policy, whistleblower protections and other changes also are needed.
Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), who chairs the Senate committee that would hear bills on policing overhauls, said that if the bill of rights is repealed, lawmakers should pass replacement legislation that clarifies due process protections for officers — comparable to those in place for other public employees.
“What has gotten lost is, what happens next?” he said.
Jones’s two sons are grown now — about the same age she was when those police cars surrounded her. One has children of his own. She prepared them, she said. But she still worries about what could happen if they are stopped by police.
“I’ve told them all the things that Black mothers tell our sons,” she said. “Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Don’t make sudden moves.”
She also added: “Make sure you have taillights that are working.”