Lawmakers: Police Training and Standards Panel Is ‘Without Teeth’

Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

The House of Delegates held the first meeting of its Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland Tuesday afternoon, the beginning of a process that leaders hope will reform policing in the state.

Lawmakers homed in on the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission — questioning the agency’s ability to hold cops accountable.

“Officers, please don’t take this in an adversarial fashion,” Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) asked of commission leadership, “but I have some questions that, I have to be honest, come from a point of skepticism.”

Following presentations from the Department of Legislative Services and representatives of the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission, some workgroup members viewed the role of the agency with incredulity.

Charles County Sheriff Troy D. Berry (D), the acting commission chairman, opened by telling lawmakers that the role of the panel is to “continually reminds agencies of various statutory and regulatory requirements.”

Asked in several different ways about the commission’s role in enforcing policy, Berry and Albert L. Liebno, the acting executive director, said the commission has no role in enforcement — in other words, the police in charge of policing the police have no authority.

Moon said it seems as though the General Assembly “set up a regime where we’re doing rules without teeth or ensuring that they’re being implemented.”

Citing a bill he sponsored with Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) that ordered the commission to create “rules” to limit the use of no-knock warrants to reduce “unnecessary violence,” Moon asked if it would be better if lawmakers were more specific about what directives need to be adhered to, suggesting that the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission did not follow their intent. 

A no-knock warrant is what led to the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by police as she slept in her Louisville, Ky., apartment.

“We asked you to make rules, and I just looked at the rules again and basically it says if it’s reasonable, you can do this as long as the officers have been trained and clearly that’s not what we intended,” Moon asserted. “But maybe that’s what happens when we hand the rulemaking off to a body composed mostly of law enforcement with no teeth.”

Prior to Moon’s questioning, members of the workgroup were briefed by Ken Weaver, a policy analyst for the Department of Legislative Services, on police reform initiatives implemented by the state in the past four years — most notably, a bill from 2016 that executed the recommendations of the Public Safety and Policing Workgroup, which was created in May 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore Police custody.

Weaver said the bill was responsible for creating the Community Program Fund as a means to pay for violence intervention initiatives. It establishes an early intervention policy for officers who face consistent complaints and offers a $5,000 tax exemption as an incentive for officers to live in the communities where they police if the area has an “above average crime rate compared to the state average.”

The legislation also renamed and reestablished the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission as an independent entity. The agency, formerly known as the Police Training Commission, was created in 1966.

The 24-member commission consists of law enforcement officials, state lawmakers and members of the public. The agency has an $11 million budget and $2 million in its fund allotted for the next fiscal year.

In addition to being renamed in 2016, the agency became responsible for:

  • Establishing and publishing a set of use of force best practices for recommended use in law enforcement agencies across the state
  • Requiring de-escalation and anti-discrimination training
  • Diversifying law enforcement agencies statewide
  • Developing standards for psychological evaluations for officer-involved incidents
  • Instituting an annual reporting system for officer-involved incidents and disciplinary measures exercised to be sent to the General Assembly
  • Creating a mental health hotline for officers to seek counseling
  • Setting up the Police Complaint Mediation Program, allowing non-violent complaints against officers to go through mediation
  • Instituting a set of best practices to establish community policing programs in every jurisdiction
  • Developing and implementing a uniform complaint process to be used by law enforcement agencies across the state

The legislation also altered the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to include clauses that prohibit discrimination against officers who report misconduct observed in the department or by their fellow officers; erase the need for use of force complaints to be notarized; allow complaints to be filed by individuals with video evidence; extend the deadline to file use of force complaints; and allow up to two members of the public to sit on administrative hearing boards.

In the wake of recent nationwide protests against police brutality, many community leaders have pushed for the abolition of this statute.

Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) said during the briefing that Maryland is one of 16 states that has a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. 

Addressing the audience watching the livestream, Davis said it’s important to know what this statute accomplishes. 

“I just want to say that Maryland was one of the first people to establish a Law Enforcement [Officers’] Bill of Rights, and it gives police officers special rights when they’re being disciplined and prevents communities from investigating misconduct that could lead to discipline,” among other things, she said. 

“I just think it’s really important for citizens to know how important that statute is.”

Regarding the administrative hearing boards, Berry said that the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission has the ability to provide citizens training on the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights so that they may sit on local law enforcement administrative hearing boards.

Berry said that, so far, no civilian has undergone the 40-hour training sessions, which are available upon request. 

“I am shocked that no one has requested training to be on the civilian review boards,” Workgroup Chair Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) declared, asking how the training sessions are advertised.

Liebno said that local police departments would request training from the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission after identifying an interested civilian.

“We are ready to provide that training upon any request that we received,” he explained.

Del. Wanika Fisher (D-Prince George’s) noted that, even should they go through with the training, civilians appointed to administrative hearing boards don’t have the ability to vote on disciplinary actions against police.

Local chiefs of police must appoint the civilians who sit on the board.

No implementation

The Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission, under the 2016 bill, established a set of best practices surrounding use of force to be recommended for adoption by local departments, but they are not mandated to be implemented. 

During the presentation, Berry said that law enforcement agencies across the state are required to conduct annual firearms training. There are regulations surrounding the use of deadly force, he said, and officers are encouraged to defuse situations and practice de-escalation.

“We would like the workgroup to understand officers are encouraged and trained to defuse rather than intensify confrontations with and between citizens,” Berry said.

He also made it clear that chokeholds aren’t taught in the state’s use of force curriculum.

Throughout the briefing, Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) pressed the experts about whether Maryland has a law providing standards for when the use of excessive or deadly force by a police officer is justified. 

Ultimately, Berry said that officers receive use of force and de-escalation training, but he did not offer Acevero a direct answer. 

“There’s not a unified use of force matrix for all the agencies in the state of Maryland,” Berry said. “I would say that, in reference to the Training Commission, we do best practices. Hopefully, that’s answered your question.”

Liebno said he wasn’t aware of any such law.

Weaver said that the Department of Legislative Services is gathering data surrounding use of force policies in other states. 

Atterbeary asked how many departments across the state have implemented the recommendations. Neither representative knew the answer.

Liebno explained that under the 2016 bill, the commission was responsible for creating the set of best practices — not “monitor or audit” their implementation — and that someone would have to reach out to each department individually to know for sure. 

“I have no idea, at this point, how many have actually implemented them,” he said.

Similarly, despite having created a Body-Worn Camera Procedural Reference Guide, Liebno said that the commission does not track the use or purchase of police body cameras. 

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City) asked to what extent officers across the state are required to intervene in circumstances where the use of force is being employed unnecessarily. 

Berry said that he and the sheriffs from Calvert and St. Mary’s counties met to reevaluate their use of force and intervention policies. Other than mentioning that these policies were discussed on a call with the Maryland Sheriff’s Association, he did not address requirements in other jurisdictions. 

Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s) asked about the clause in the commission’s best practices recommendation that bans discrimination within police departments.

Last week, former Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski resigned following the release of an expert report alleging dozens of discriminatory episodes within the department.

“My police department here in Prince George’s County has just been hit with a large, 94-page document of some of their infractions and I’m just trying to understand how is this commission holding them accountable for certain things?” Barnes asked.

Berry replied that the commission is just a “statutory and regulatory kind of commission,” and said that if lawmakers want that to change they must put forth legislation.

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