Police Accountability Is a Public Safety Measure, Lawmakers Argue

Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

A grieving Antone Black sat before the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis Tuesday with tears in his eyes.

He described his son Anton: A model and star athlete, with aspirations to be a state trooper.

“My son was a good kid, never been in trouble,” said Black.

On a September evening in 2018, 19-year-old Anton Black was stopped by a police officer with his friend in his hometown of Greensboro.

According to his father’s testimony, Anton ran from multiple law enforcement officers to his home and, unable to find his house key, locked himself in a car. Black then said that former Greensboro Police Officer Thomas Webster IV extricated him from the vehicle.

He said that’s when Webster and the other men subdued his son.

“They got him on the ground and they choked him,” he said. “The last thing he said: ‘Mommy, don’t let them kill me.’”

Antone Black Sr., Anton Black’s father, talks to reporters at Mt. Pleasant Methodist Church in Greensboro in January. Photo by Glynis Kazanjian.

Black then described his son as officers held his body down: Eyes hemorrhaging and body turning blue.

Anton died in police custody.

“They murdered my child,” Black told lawmakers. “I can say that ― I’m his dad.”

Sponsored for the second year in a row by Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery), proposed legislation in Anton Black’s name would be aimed at increasing levels of police transparency and accountability in the state.

The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), was heard in the Judicial Proceedings Committee the same afternoon.

Anton Black’s sister La Toya Holley also testified before the House committee Tuesday, stating that the process of getting information throughout the investigation into her brother’s death was long and hard-fought.

“What we went through to actually obtain just a smidgen of information about what happened to him was ridiculous,” she said.

Holley said that until the media asked Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) to comment on the case, her family had received very little. Only then, she said, were they given the Maryland State Police and Medical Examiners reports.

“We were fortunate enough to have Gov. Hogan say something for us,” she said. “The governor can’t speak for us all, but we hope this House bill will.”

The Baltimore Sun reported last year that Hogan pressed investigators for answers into Black’s death.

During a news conference held before the bill hearing, Acevero said that he is working with the governor’s legislative team and that he has asked Hogan to continue advocating for Black’s family and community by supporting the bill.

At the news conference, lawmakers heralded the legislation as a public safety measure.

Del. Stephanie Smith (D-Baltimore City) said the bill isn’t simply about social justice, but could be an important public safety tool.

“Everything comes down to relationships,” said Smith, who went on to blame the city’s low crime prosecution rate on “strained” police-community relations. She said that House Bill 1090 is about restoring faith in policing.

“This is critical to the toolkit of public safety…having police officers that we can trust, respect and that can also conduct their jobs ethically and constitutionally,” she said.

Smith and other Democratic lawmakers have recently butted heads with Hogan over a package of bills he has proposed to quash the growing violent crime rate in Baltimore City.

“This is your crime plan,” said Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Maryland Toni Holness at the bill hearing.  “Restoring trust and policing is not only complementary, it is essential to dealing with the public safety issues that we have not only in Baltimore City but across our state.”

Acevero said in an interview Tuesday that he will work to ensure that House and Senate leadership make police transparency and accountability provision a top priority.

Broken down, the legislation looks to reform three areas of police-community relations:

Public records requests

Before the incident resulting in Black’s death, Webster had been a police officer in Delaware where he was found to have multiple use of force reports on his record.

In July 2019 after Black’s death, he was decertified as a police officer by the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission.

Webster has been cleared of criminal charges in the death of Anton Black.

Acevero told the committee that under his legislation, personnel records like Webster’s could more easily be found and rooted out.

If enacted, citizens would be able to place Maryland Public Information Act requests for the review of information surrounding formally submitted misconduct complaints against police officers in most circumstances. Under current law, those complaints ― deemed “personnel records” ―  are sealed from the public.

Testifying in opposition to the bill was Karen Kruger of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, who said that the release of these records would make police officers subject to levels of scrutiny no other government employees face.

“We need to bear in mind: People make complaints about police officers for a lot of reasons,” she said. “And not all of them are legitimate and there are investigative processes to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.”

Representing the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association was Riverdale Park Police Chief David Morris, who agreed with Kruger.

Morris said that he supports proposed Maryland Public Information Act reform aimed at policing sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) that would make officer disciplinary records available in public records requests under specific circumstances.

That legislation was heard in the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday as well.

Law Enforcement Bill of Rights

Anton’s Law would also rescind a portion of the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights that mandates that the investigating party in police misconduct complaints must be another sworn law enforcement officer, the Attorney General or one of his designees.

Acevero stated during the hearing that this repeal would allow communities to create their own civilian review boards to look into instances of police misconduct.

“That doesn’t provide any trust or transparency if we have police departments, in essence, investigating themselves,” he said.

Testifying in opposition to Acevero’s legislation on behalf of the Maryland Troopers Association was Rebecca Smith, who expressed concern about methods of training for the individuals who would be looking into these misconduct cases.

Use of force

Under the bill, police officers would be justified to use force when they are trying to prevent an individual from perpetrating a crime or when they believe that an individual committed a crime and they are trying to prevent their flight.

Use of deadly force would be justified if police believe that it’s necessary to prevent serious harm to themselves or civilians and the circumstance lends itself to no other recourse — but could not be based on the premise that the perpetrator would harm or kill themselves.

“Right now, the current standard … particularly when officers go to court is ‘I feared for my life,’ and that is not a reasonable or justified standard and we need to establish that,” Acevero said.

Kruger said Acevero’s definition of use of force in its current state is “far too simplistic,” and that it challenges the notion that officers grapple with serious, chaotic life-or-death situations.

Kruger tried to conceptualize the experience for the committee, giving the example of driving a car down an alley in Baltimore City when a plastic bag floats up into your periphery.

“Suddenly something appears out of … my left peripheral view, and I slam on the brakes because it’s unexpected, and I don’t know what it is,” she said.

“Now was my slamming on the brakes necessary? Was it justified? Was it proportional? No ― but it was reasonable,” Kruger said. “And all of you would have done the same thing.”

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Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.