Maryland police who are accused of misconduct enjoy procedural protections far beyond those granted other public servants, let alone ordinary civilians suspected of wrongdoing or criminal conduct. Enshrined in law for nearly 50 years, those protections are among the most elaborate in the country, and have stood as a bulwark against justice and transparency in cases of police abuse, corruption and brutality. It’s time to end an array of special privileges that amount to a systemic shield against accountability.
The question is, what should replace them?
In Annapolis, the Democratic-controlled state legislature is wrestling with that question. Party liberals are pressing for outright repeal of the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, the measure enacted in 1974 at the behest of police unions that spawned similar bills in other states. Others believe that tearing it up with nothing to replace it is a recipe for unintended consequences — namely a hodgepodge of rules established willy-nilly by police departments around the state.
There’s no question the bill of rights goes too far, even after slight trims made by lawmakers in recent years. Officers are afforded five days following an incident of alleged misconduct before they must speak with internal affairs investigators — a waiting period enabling them to get their stories straight with other officers or forensics. Those accused of wrongdoing may be questioned by fellow officers from internal trial boards but not by civilian review boards. Separate legislation blocks public access to disciplinary actions and complaints against officers, even repeat offenders. The speaker of the House of Delegates, Adrienne Jones, was right that the current rules feed the perception that police “can get away with anything.”
Still, it’s wrong to suggest police need no more protection in disciplinary procedures than any other public servant. By its nature, policing is fraught with conflict and sometimes dangerous. Most bureaucrats need not worry that their tasks will be impeded, or their careers derailed, by a flurry of anonymous complaints of alleged misconduct lodged by drug dealers. Police officers do.
Smart reforms would include giving civilians well versed in law enforcement a muscular role in reviewing and investigating alleged misconduct. They should also strip officers of so-called waiting periods before they are required to speak with internal affairs investigators, while maintaining reasonable due process protections to ensure officers will not be subject to arbitrary discipline.
Some police chiefs, sheriffs and elected officials have sided with civil rights groups in arguing that police must be held to higher standards. After the death in Baltimore police custody of Freddie Gray in 2015, the city’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, blamed the bill of rights for impeding a quick and effective investigation. That was a prominent case but not an isolated one. Marylanders deserve better, and lawmakers have resisted robust reforms for too long.