The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The first state to pass a police ‘Bill of Rights’ could become the first to repeal it

Friends of Anton Black gather for a rally and protest in his memory on June 7 in Chestertown, Md. Black is pictured on the shirts and posters. (Courtland Milloy/The Washington Post)

Anton Black died after being chased, Tasered and pinned to the ground, the weight of three officers pressing on his 160-pound frame.

His family repeatedly sought records from the small local police department on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, desperate to understand the final minutes the 19-year-old college student spent alive. But they were stonewalled.

There was no civilian board to review the behavior of Thomas Webster IV, the officer who first encountered Black in Greensboro, Md. There was no release of Webster’s extensive prior disciplinary record. And because of Maryland’s renowned Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, it is likely that Webster’s initial interrogation was conducted by officers from his own department and that he had five days to consult with a lawyer before answering questions.

“There was no kind of justice for the community,” said Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery), who has pushed for changes in policing since Black’s death in 2018. “There needs to be transparency and accountability in the way that we serve communities.”

Months after George Floyd’s death sparked a national demand to overhaul policing, Maryland lawmakers are launching a historic effort to get rid of police protections such as the bill of rights, a decades-old statute that was the first in the country to codify workplace protections for officers accused of misconduct.

The law was a blueprint for at least 15 other states, including Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake was paralyzed from the waist down after a police-involved shooting this summer; Minnesota, where Floyd was killed after an officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes; and Kentucky, where police stormed into Breonna Taylor’s apartment on a no-knock warrant and fatally shot her.

Repealing the protections might seem relatively easy in Maryland, a state where both legislative chambers have super­majorities of Democrats, who have tended to be sympathetic to calls for police accountability and social justice. But prior efforts have failed, including after Black’s death and the fatal injury of Freddie Gray — another unarmed young Black man — in Baltimore police custody three years earlier.

Some blame systemic racism and the disparate treatment of Black people in the state’s justice system, noting that 70 percent of Maryland’s prison population is Black — the highest percentage in the country. Others point to the influence of the police union, which argues that police work exposes officers to special risks and, therefore, requires special protections.

“All I hear is a bunch of adults giving illegitimate reasons for why they can’t do the right thing,” said LaToya Holley, Black’s sister.

A Maryland suburb known for a slaveholding past confronts its racist present

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) has pledged that this year will be different. She vowed in October to push through a raft of reforms and transparency measures, chief among them repealing the officers’ bill of rights.

“I am not someone who hates the police,” Jones, the first Black House speaker in Maryland, said during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “But over the years, I have had my own experiences with law enforcement, as have my brothers and my sons, that have called in to question the way that we as a state and as a society have empowered law enforcement officers to execute their duties.”

Holley has traveled to Annapolis numerous times since her brother’s death to push for a reform bill Acevero named in her brother’s honor. She testified again, remotely, Tuesday night.

That morning, she said, she had lain awake in bed, trying to figure out what she could say that was different from what she had said last year, or the year before.

“What are the right words?” she asked the panel. “Do they exist? Or do they fall on deaf ears?”

Protecting the 'good officers'

Since Floyd’s death, 36 states and D.C. have introduced more than 700 police accountability bills. Nearly 100 have been enacted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

They range from mandating use-of-force training to creating civilian review boards to requiring departments to report when their officers use their service weapons or other force.

But experts say they are not aware of any state that has repealed the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. In addition to making disciplinary records public, Maryland lawmakers are also weighing bills that would require independent investigations of officer-involved killings; a statewide use-of-force standard that includes a ban on chokeholds; and a restriction on no-knock warrants.

“Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done,” Jones said in an interview. “This is the time and place to do it.”

Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, described Maryland’s police bill of rights, enacted in 1974, 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. It also gives an officer five days instead of the normal 48 hours to appear before internal investigators.

“It’s really disastrous,” Walker said.

There’s a reason it’s hard to discipline police. It starts with a bill of rights 47 years ago.

Maria Haberfeld, an expert on police training and discipline at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said officers’ bills of rights are controversial but may be necessary. Lawmakers who want to ensure good policing, she added, should focus on recruiting and training.

“Policing is a profession that is predicated on use of force,” Haberfeld said. “There are situations where [use of force] is the only thing that is left.”

Walker said the original notion to give special workplace protections had some racial overtones, approved after the civil rights movement and when crime was on the rise. Police officers “didn’t like . . . being accused of misconduct all the time by civil rights groups.”

They also were upset, he said, about the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona Supreme Court decision, which affirmed the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and created new rules for police interrogations.

The Maryland Fraternal Order of Police has mounted a telephone and email campaign to oppose repealing the bill of rights and, with its local lodges, has hired top lobbyists Frank Boston, Gerard Evans and John Stierhoff to assist.

FOP President Clyde Boatwright said his members are telling legislators to not let “the things that are happening nationally affect our policy.” Giving civilians a role in investigations of police conduct, he said, would be akin to allowing members of the public to take part in a soldier’s court-martial.

“We need to have a right where our police officers are not unfairly treated,” Boatwright, who testified against repeal on Tuesday, said in an interview.

The Keep Maryland Safe website frames its pitch around the need to protect the “good officers” — and guaranteeing fairness for Black and Latino officers.

“If the due process rights disappear . . . Maryland is likely to see an exodus of good officers,” the website says. “A lack of a statewide due process standard for officers has the potential to put minority officers at risk — allowing police commanders to remove officers from the line of duty and fire them without cause.”

A deadly chase

Anton Black’s relatives did not receive his autopsy report until four months after his death, following weeks of protests and a statement by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) that the family deserved more information.

Then they saw photos of the dozens of contusions and marks on his body. They saw the body-camera footage, which was also released to the public, that showed the initial encounter with Webster and the attempts by paramedics to keep him alive. And they obtained the report from the Maryland State Police.

In December, the family sued the officers, the state medical examiner, the three towns where the officers served and the two police chiefs involved in the case.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, says Webster responded to a 911 call from a woman who reported that Black was dragging a younger boy. Black, who had recently been hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was “acting strangely . . . talking to himself incoherently and making very little sense,” the lawsuit states.

The younger boy, whose cousin is married to Black’s sister, said yes when the woman asked if she should call police.

Black ran when Webster arrived, and Webster chased him. According to body-camera footage, Webster told a civilian on a motorcycle to help with the pursuit. Black reached his mother’s house and slid into a car parked outside. Webster shattered the driver-side window and used a Taser on Black as he jumped out on the passenger side.

“Anton Black died because police employed excessive force, laying him out prone on his stomach, lying on top of him for approximately six minutes and approximately five minutes after he was handcuffed, and folding his legs toward the sky in a manner that further compromised his ability to breathe,” the lawsuit states.

It says police falsely claimed that Black was high on marijuana laced with another drug and was exhibiting “superhuman” strength. The autopsy found no drugs in Black’s system. Bipolar disorder was listed as a contributing cause of his death, which the autopsy labeled an accident.

“They tried to make him look like the bad guy,” said Holley, who remembered her younger brother as a popular athlete who won awards in high school track and field and as an aspiring model. He was enrolled at Wesley College in Dover, Del., she said.

Webster’s attorney, Kevin Karpinski, and attorneys for the other defendants did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

George Floyd’s America: Examining system racism and injustice

Problematic records

Black’s family eventually learned Webster had 30 use-of-force complaints filed against him in his previous job on the police force in Dover. In 2013, Webster, who is White, kicked a Black man in the head, knocking him out and fracturing his jaw. Dash-cam footage showed the man kneeling down to surrender when Webster struck him.

Webster was charged with second-degree felony assault but acquitted. After the police department settled a lawsuit filed by the man, Webster was banned from the force.

He was hired less than two years later by Greensboro Police Chief Michael Petyo, who previously worked in Wyoming, Del., next to Dover.

Petyo knew about Webster’s disciplinary history in Dover but did not give that information to the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission, as required by law. He pleaded guilty last year to one count of misconduct in office for making “intentional misrepresentations and factual omissions” in Webster’s application for certification.

Holley said Black’s family still has not seen Webster’s disciplinary record from his time as a police officer in Maryland. Unlike more than two dozen other states, Maryland bars the release of such records — another way in which advocates say police are shielded from accountability.

The bill she testified in support of is one of two before the legislature that would make such records available.

“We need it to protect the Antons to come,” she said in an interview. “How many more of our brothers and fathers and sons have to die?”

Maryland’s most powerful Black politician targets the nation’s strongest police protections

There’s a reason it’s hard to discipline police. It starts with a bill of rights 47 years ago.

15,000 dead: How coronavirus tore through D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Police reform in America

Repeated police misconduct: More than $1.5 billion has been spent to settle claims of police misconduct involving thousands of officers repeatedly accused of wrongdoing. Taxpayers are often in the dark.

Listen: “Broken Doors” is a six-part investigative podcast about how no-knock warrants are deployed in the American justice system — and what happens when accountability is flawed at every level.

Fatal Force: Since 2015, The Washington Post has logged every fatal shooting by an on-duty police officer in the United States. View our police shooting database.

Fired/Rehired: Police departments have had to take back hundreds of officers who were fired for misconduct and then rehired after arbitration.

Read more coverage on policing in America.