Lawmakers Ask: Is Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights Necessary?

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Legislators pushed back Thursday as Maryland law enforcement representatives steadfastly defended the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

“I hope that your group hasn’t completely misread the movement that’s going on across America,” said Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard), who chairs the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland . “I hope you haven’t misread the tea leaves but change is a-comin’. I can’t sit here and say how change is coming because I don’t know that, but change is a-comin’.”

Lawmakers on the workgroup questioned police chiefs, sheriffs, state troopers, advocates and attorneys during a briefing Thursday about maintaining the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which gives police due process safeguards in investigatory and disciplinary scenarios.

Maryland laid out the blueprint for the controversial statute in the 1970s and remains just one of 16 states to still have the law in effect.

In light of the summer’s civil unrest following the high-profile police deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., advocates have decried the statute, demanding its repeal.

Calls for its removal have been compounded by the case of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man who was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wis., last week. 

Wisconsin also still maintains its Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights

Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the Legislative Black Caucus chairman, told a panel representing the Maryland Chiefs and Sheriffs Association that it’s “hard time” Maryland “lead by example” and put measures in place to fix police-community relations.

“As the chairman of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, I am frightened for my members as they come to me and tell me how afraid they are of the police,” he said.

Karen Kruger, an attorney for the Maryland Chiefs and Sheriffs Association, said she believes the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights should have been named the “Law Enforcement Accountability Act,” because it was established, in part, to grant power to management to investigate instances of alleged misconduct. She also expressed concern that its repeal could create obstacles in disciplining officers charged with misconduct.

Charles County Sheriff Troy Berry (D) said he’s concerned about what disciplinary procedure for police officers would look like should the law be repealed.

“If we take away the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights where it stands, I don’t know what we’re moving towards,” he said.

Berry referenced Jacob Blake, noting that his shooting investigation has been taken out of the hands of local law enforcement.

“As a sheriff, I’m held accountable for what criminally happens in our community and I think … it would be very difficult for me to sit idly by and let the outside organization do the investigation,” he said.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City) asked the panel of chiefs what would happen to a Maryland police officer under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights if they were implicated in a situation similar to Floyd’s or Blake’s.

Kruger said a criminal investigation would open “immediately,” and that an internal investigation into the incident could occur simultaneously. 

Atterbeary asked the group of managing officers if they would support civilians participating in misconduct investigations or serving on charging committees, having subpoena power and making trial boards more transparent by recording them and opening them to the public.

“I think we are looking to see what is it that you support so that the community feels like they are involved — so that the community feels like they understand what’s going on, and this isn’t a hidden process,” she said.

A bill passed in 2016 mandated that, under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, hearing board procedures be open to the public and police forces may permit up to two civilians to sit on the boards. 

Kruger explained that chiefs have the authority to nominate citizens to these bodies, but that local municipalities must pass legislation approving the chief’s authority to appoint someone.

At the workgroup’s first meeting in June, Berry told lawmakers that no civilians have sat on a review board or undergone training

Atterbeary questioned how civilians are recruited.

“If people don’t know it’s open to the public, then it really it’s kind of a meaningless, you know, ‘Wave the banner, we’re doing a great thing here,’” she said.

Kruger said she provided training to a group of civilians that expressed interest in sitting on the Baltimore City Police Department’s hearing review board a few weeks ago.

On each panel, the conversation ultimately came down to what would happen if the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights were repealed.

Attorney Michael Davey told lawmakers that, should the law be stricken, police would still be subject to due process under the constitution, but that the General Assembly would have little-to-no control over the state’s 148 law enforcement agencies’ varying departmental practices.

If the LEOBR was repealed, there would be due process rights for law enforcement officers consistent with the civil service policies of each jurisdiction, so everyone would have their own policy based on the civil service policies that their jurisdiction has,” he said. “It would not be a straight state policy, it would be whatever the whatever is in place at that jurisdiction.”

Del. Wanika Fisher (D-Prince George’s) asked panelists why Maryland should remain in the minority of states that still has a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. She noted that, since 2005, only six officers have been charged in police killings.

According to the Mapping Police Violence database, 138 people were killed by police officers from 2013 to 2019.

“We appreciate officers who want to do their jobs, but you’re not the jury, judge and executioner,” Fisher asserted. “We pay a whole lot of other people to do that. That is not your job. I just got to be 100 with you. It’s just not.”

Kruger said the law may be called a “bill of rights,” but its purpose is to set up procedure. 

“With respect to the impact of the LEOBR on police encounters that end in tragedy, I’m not sure we could really establish a nexus between those two things.”

Fisher responded that law enforcement’s ability to self-regulate is not working. 

“I think it’s time to really question yourself,” she said. “Can you self regulate when only six officers in the state of Maryland have been held accountable since 2005? And I don’t really think you can, especially when your agency is dealing with life or death.”

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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.