Republicans penned a letter to Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) on Monday, requesting that he cancel the multi-day police reform bill hearings scheduled for this week.
Members of the Senate Republican Caucus assert that the rare move to hold hearings intended to introduce major police reform legislation outside of the 90-day legislative session is “a planned and concerted effort to excite partisan, political activists before an upcoming election.“
“Let’s not turn the Maryland Senate into a ‘Capitol Hill-style’ show with partisan hearings,” the Senate Republican Caucus wrote. “We can and should do better.”
Republicans said the package of “unambiguously anti-police bills” sponsored by Judicial Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) and Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) were crafted by “ideologically one-sided advocacy groups” ― not in the bipartisan manner that police reform legislation of the past has typically been ushered into law.
“It should be noted that Republicans were not even invited to introduce legislation,” the caucus wrote. “Perhaps even worse, the hearings do not include any scheduled time for law enforcement officials to brief members and the public on our state’s current training policies on use of force and how they play out practically as well as on the views of our law enforcement professionals on potential opportunities for improvement.”
Sen. Justin Ready (R-Carroll) said that the rushed bill hearing is a wasted opportunity to have conversations with directly impacted communities and law enforcement experts to craft well-rounded reform legislation.
“Only a pretty extreme ideologue would believe that the issues we’ve seen around the country dealing with law enforcement, trust in communities, public safety ― that only one side is to blame, or is totally right and everything that’s been said and done,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “So to me, it feels like a missed opportunity to have a more of a roundtable discussion and a two-way conversation, as opposed to just, we’re gonna have a bunch of bills presented from one side of the ideological spectrum.”
“With the way these hearings stacks up you would think we’re in like 1975 and it’s Bull Connor drawn down on people in downtown Baltimore,” Ready said. “It’s just not the case.”
Ready, a co-signer of the letter, is one of four Republicans on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Smith told Maryland Matters in a phone interview Monday that introducing these bills is just a “starting point,” and that everyone will have the ability to weigh in on policy in the months leading up to the session.
“The vast majority of the legislation that’s before us now has been before us before in one shape or another so very few of these ideas are novel,” Smith said. “They need to be repackaged but we’ve all seen some iteration of this idea before.”
Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford), a co-signer of the letter and another member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, says repackaging failed bills to “make a political statement” outside of the 90-day session is wasted time.
“If your objective was to just draw up 15 pretty bad ideas and throw them back in the mill again to make a political statement, you could do that in January,” he said. “Wait ‘til the session begins and throw that nonsense back out here again.”
“We’ve got a good team here ― we can do some good stuff ― but you’ve got to deploy your team effectively,” said Cassilly in a phone interview Monday. “And this is not an effective deployment of our team, is it?”
In their letter, Republicans said they will reject “any attempt to characterize these three days as ‘public hearings’” as defined by Senate rules and request, should Ferguson not choose to cancel the hearings, that the bills be re-introduced at the start of the 2021 session in January.
Ferguson penned a response to the caucus Monday afternoon.
“These draft bills and this week’s series of hearings serve as a starting point for the members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee to be able to receive meaningful input from constituents, stakeholders, and organizations,” he wrote.
Ferguson also defended holding the virtual bill hearings, saying that the three month gap between now and the session will give lawmakers the appropriate time to craft thoughtful, responsible policing legislation.
“We cannot and should not turn a blind eye on the calls for accountability, transparency, and reform in policing, nor should we put policing reform efforts at odds with initiatives to address and prevent crime,” he wrote.
In their letter, Republican lawmakers have requested that the committee hold a hearing on a package of anti-crime bills, noting a rise in violent crime coupled with an understaffed police force in Baltimore City.
The Baltimore Sun’s homicide database reports that 240 people have been murdered in Baltimore City since the start of 2020 ― that’s 108 shy of 2019’s homicide count with a little more than three months left in the year.
“Clearly there is a crisis of violence in our streets that must be addressed,” they wrote.
Cassilly said that he’s made attempts to go into underserved areas in Baltimore with his colleagues in the Senate to understand the root of the violence but no one has ever taken him up on it.
“I just have a hard time seeing some of the sincerity,” he said. “I think that if we want to take three days in the summer to really enlighten ourselves and try to understand some problems more effectively, I think that [seeing things first-hand] would be three days well spent.”
Ferguson noted that the Senate crafted a package of community safety bills that sailed through the chamber on a bipartisan basis before meeting Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s veto earlier this year.
“I am proud of the bipartisan work the Senate did to address issues of violence and root causes of crime, and am hopeful that we again will demonstrate how we can work together for Maryland,” he wrote.
Smith said that he, Carter and Sydnor acknowledge the fact that there is a problem with crime in Baltimore City, and that this package of bills intends to approach the problem comprehensively.
“What we’re seeking to do is to reform systems that have produced inequitable results ― especially in communities of color ― for generations,” he explained. “And so, for me personally, and for, I know, the rest of the committee that we have nothing but the highest level of respect and regard for the brave women and men that serve in our communities as law enforcement, so it’s not an affront to those folks ― it’s not an affront of their profession ― it’s an attempt to address systemic inequities and I think that gets that gets lost in a lot of the rhetoric of this letter.”
The Senate Republican Caucus also alleges in the letter that there are more examples of assaults against police officers in Maryland than instances of police brutality and misconduct.
According to the Mapping Police Violence database, Maryland law enforcement officers killed 138 members of the public between 2013 and 2019.
Last week at a briefing of the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland, Del. Wanika Fisher (D-Prince George’s) told representatives of the State’s Attorneys’ Association that, since 2006, only five officers have been prosecuted and convicted for civilian deaths in Maryland.
ACLU weighs in
Senate Republicans aren’t the only critics of the 15 bills to be heard this week.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, backed by dozens of advocacy organizations, released a statement Monday morning, calling the package “insufficient,” alleging that Smith did not give directly impacted individuals a seat at the table in their creation.
“Some bills are fine, some are meaningless, and others are just bad,” said Yanet Amanuel, public policy advocate for the ACLU of Maryland, in a statement. “But in their entirety, they miss the point: Power over law enforcement must shift into the hands of the community.”
The coalition has called for the General Assembly to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, reform the Maryland Public Information Act to allow police misconduct and disciplinary records to be reviewed by the public, implement a uniform use of force policy across the state, end the deployment of resource officers in schools and return control of the Baltimore City Police department from the state to city residents.
Some of the coalition’s priorities are included within the proposed bills, while other proposals don’t go as far.
“We must end the practice of police policing themselves,” Amanuel said. “Anything that doesn’t achieve that is insufficient.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include statements from Senate President Bill Ferguson.