After Baltimore riots, changes to police ‘bill of rights’ sought

As the national debate continues over police shootings and the use of excessive force, a Maryland legislative panel Monday weighed whether changes should be made to the protections afforded to officers accused of misconduct.

Police officers, advocates of police restructuring, sheriffs and police chiefs offered testimony on the merits of reducing a provision that gives officers 10 days to receive representation before cooperating with an investigation, opening trial boards to the public, and increasing from 90 days to a year and one day the length of time that someone may file a brutality complaint against an officer.

Officials from the state NAACP and the ACLU of Maryland said they hope the panel will consider recommending that the General Assembly do away with the “10-day rule” and increase the time for filing a complaint — actions they say are necessary to repair the fractured relationship between police and communities.

In this Aug. 9, 2015 photo provided by Noah Scialom, a member of the Baltimore Police Department points a gun during a confrontation with dirt bikers, bicyclists and onlookers in Baltimore. Police in riot gear cleared the crowd from a street near Druid Hill Park after they said some had thrown objects at officers. (Noah Scialom/AP)

An effort to make changes to Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBR) earlier this year died in committee.

“We think without radical reform, communities across the state will not have the confidence in their police force that everyone should have,” said Rion Dennis, co-political action chair for the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP. “If we cannot count on [police officers] to be orderly themselves, it becomes a real breakdown in society.”

The legislative work group was formed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) after the Baltimore riots in April and the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. Gray’s death sparked unrest in the city and placed Maryland at the center of a national discussion about police use of deadly or excessive force on African Americans. Six police officers have been charged in Gray’s death.

The panel, which has examined police training and recruitment, focused its efforts Monday on the country’s oldest Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, enacted in Maryland in 1974.

Police union officials said the policy, which is designed to provide due process rights to officers, needs no revision.

“The LEOBR works and does not need to be changed,” said Frank D. Boston III, the legislative counsel for the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police. “It weeds out the bad police officers or bad apples and serves to protect the good police officers who are doing their jobs.”

Dale Jones, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Prince George’s County, said 198 officers have been terminated or resigned with prejudice for misconduct over the past 10 years, an indication that the LEOBR serves its purpose.

Police chiefs and sheriffs said they are willing to help the committee make adjustments to the statute if it will provide accountability and trust in the administrative process.

“We have a perception problem that we don’t fire bad cops, but I think we do fire bad cops,” said Phil Hinkle, an attorney and chief of staff for the Charles County Sheriff’s Office. “If opening up the hearings [when a police officer goes before a trial board], if that’s what it’s going to take to help the perception, bring it on.”

Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore City), the committee co-chairman, asked several chiefs whether their trial boards are open to the public. Prince George’s officials said their hearings are open to the public but are not advertised.

Hinkle said his office had no concerns with shortening the 10-day rule to five days or even three days.

Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said one of the biggest complaints he has heard from constituents about police brutality is the amount of time officers are given before they are required to cooperate with an investigation.

“We have to find a middle ground,” Wilson said, adding that an officer has a year and a day to file an assault charge against a suspect and that the same time frame should be given to a person who accuses an officer of excessive force.

During a news conference before the hearing, advocates also raised concerns about the process by which the panel has gathered information over the past few months.

Marion Gray-Hopkins, a Prince George’s mother whose son, Gary A. Hopkins Jr., an unarmed college student, was killed in an altercation with police in 1999, said that she has no confidence in the panel’s work.

“I think it’s a dog and pony show,” she said.

The panel has held all its hearings in Annapolis. One town hall was held this past month to receive information from the public, but some who attended said they were not permitted to discuss their recommendations for changing policy, including the LEOBR.

“Having [hearings] in the middle of August in the middle of the day also makes it difficult for regular people to come out and let their voices be heard,” Dennis said, “and that’s who really needs to be heard on this issue, because people every day are having adverse run-ins with police wherein the system of accountability has shown to be broken.”