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Here’s a Status Report on Police Reform Measures Passed by House Workgroup

Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) chairs a meeting of the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability on Thursday. Screenshot.

The House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland is preparing its recommendations ahead of the 2021 legislative session.

The workgroup, created by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) following the death of George Floyd in late May, voted on 11 measures Thursday.

Here is a breakdown of what may be on the table in January.

Recommendation 1: All police departments are to deploy body-worn cameras by Jan. 1, 2025.

The House Judiciary Committee has another workgroup examining body camera storage and data. Police Reform Chairwoman Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) said that their report is due in December, and that budgets are set to be “back on normal track by 2024.”

The recommendation passed 10-2.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City) also recommended requiring police departments to submit annual reports on their process of obtaining body-worn cameras, which would allow the General Assembly to monitor whether there are procurement issues or whether agencies are dragging their feet.

Rosenberg’s measure passed unanimously.

Recommendation 2: Enact a statewide use of force statute.

Maryland is one of nine states without a standardized use of force policy.

This recommendation would seek to create one uniform use of force statute for all 24 jurisdictions. The policy came with a host of subsections, including:

  • Requiring that deadly force is used only to stop an immediate threat to an officer or member of the public;
  • Establishing an officer’s duty to intervene when an officer observes objectively unreasonable use of force;
  • Creating an early warning system that would identify and retrain officers who have displayed “excessive incidents” where force is used;
  • Prohibiting officers from shooting at vehicles unless the vehicle is being used as a weapon;
  • Requiring every officer sign a sanctity of life pledge;
  • Banning the use of chokeholds;
  • Barring the use of military grade equipment by police departments;
  • Mandating implementation of use of force best practices created by the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission;
  • Establishing the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission as the agency responsible for holding officers and departments to account when they have violated the use of force statute;
  • Banning the use of no-knock warrants;
  • Allowing the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission to decertify officers who have violated the use of force statute;
  • Barring the hiring of officers who were fired or resigned while under investigation for misconduct;
  • Creating a statewide database to monitor officer discipline and decertification; and
  • Making violation of the state’s use of force statute a crime punishable by up to 10 years of imprisonment.

Many of these recommendations were introduced as draft bills by members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee at virtual bill hearings last month.

The workgroup passed the recommendation to create a standard use of force statute on an 8-2 vote. Atterbeary said that the committee would revisit the recommended subsections next week.

Recommendation 3: Officer involved shootings that result in death are to be independently investigated and prosecuted.

Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore City) said this recommendation should be broadened to include all killings that occur in police custody — not just shootings — and Del. Wanika Fisher (D-Prince George’s) suggested amending this recommendation to include serious bodily injury.

“I think for many Marylanders … being left quadriplegic after your interaction with police deserves an independent investigation,” she said.

Lawmakers disagreed over which bodies should be responsible for investigating and prosecuting excessive or deadly force. At earlier workgroup meetings, police chiefs, sheriffs and state’s attorneys were made uneasy at the idea of removing their jurisdiction over these cases.

Atterbeary moved to vote on this recommendation next week.

Recommendation 4: Police unions would be prohibited from making collective bargaining agreements about  disciplinary actions.

Under this recommendation, the Fraternal Order of Police could not bargain with departments to determine punitive actions that follow the submission of a complaint or the violation of the use of force statute.

If enacted, this measure would be in effect once current union contracts run out.

“I think this would be the equivalent of preemption,” said Rosenberg. “That the state’s saying this is the way this issue shall be addressed and taking this authority away from local government to negotiate.”

The recommendation passed 11-2.

Recommendation 5: Mental health screenings and assessments would be required before hiring any officer. Officers also would be reevaluated periodically by a certified mental health professional.

This measure was passed unanimously.

Recommendation 6: Prior marijuana use would no longer disqualify a prospective officer from being hired.

This recommendation was separated out of recommendation five, and passed by a vote of 8-5.

Recommendation 7: Control of the Baltimore City Police Department would be returned to the city.

Baltimore City’s police department currently falls under the jurisdiction of the state. House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City) sponsored a bill in 2019 to return the control of the department to the city. His legislation passed unanimously in the House, but made little headway in the Senate.

Anderson told workgroup members that the city’s police force is largely funded by Baltimore City taxpayer dollars, and that a “very substantial part” of the city’s budget goes to the police force.

The recommendation passed unanimously.

Recommendation 8: The General Assembly would begin a study to determine what types of calls for service could be diverted from police to other community resources.

Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) proposed that the General Assembly study how dispatch decisions are made to determine the best ways to divert non-criminal emergency calls from law enforcement.

Atterbeary said that mental health is not within the purview of the workgroup, but that the Judiciary will hear a number of bills relating to mental health during the 2021 session.

This recommendation passed unanimously.

Recommendation 9: Officers would undergo periodic physical assessments.

Atterbeary said this recommendation was proposed under the theory that officers who are less “in shape” may be quicker to implement excessive force via guns or chokeholds.

This recommendation passed unanimously.

Recommendation 10: Create a scholarship for college students to take courses geared towards policing and criminal justice. Upon graduating, they would commit to serving as a police officer for a period of time.

Anderson told the committee that this recommendation is an attempt to diversify law enforcement agencies who say that they have difficulty recruiting women and people of color.

“It would answer the question that I hear most often from police agencies, when I ask them about why don’t they have more Black, Latino women, Asian officers in their ranks?” he said. “They say, ‘well, we can’t find them.’”

This recommendation passed unanimously.

Recommendation 11: The Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission would create an implicit bias test and training module, which all departments would be required to use during the hiring process. Additionally, officers would be required to undergo periodic implicit bias testing and training.

Atterbeary said that the test would demonstrate whether or not officers display bias against certain populations.

Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) suggested that, while it’s “certainly needed,” perhaps it doesn’t go far enough.

Acevero said that prospective officers should be asked under penalty of perjury during the application process if they are affiliated with white nationalist organizations.

“I think it is certainly relevant and it needs to be a question that, once they’re hired, the the agency needs to ensure that they’re keeping an eye on that,” he said.

Acevero’s comments left Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) confused.

“Is Del. Acevero saying that the police are white nationalists now and he wants to root them out?” she asked. “Those comments were interesting.”

He responded by noting that American policing was born out of slave patrols, and that he believes there are people with white nationalist “leans and sympathies” that work in law enforcement.

“The foundation of law enforcement in the United States is rooted in racism and that has transformed over the years into the institutions that we’re seeing today,” Acevero said. “I would not feel comfortable with someone who … is a member of a white nationalist group, being a law enforcement officer or policing my streets.”

The recommendation passed along party lines, with all Democrats voting for and all Republicans voting against.

The workgroup will hold its last meeting next week, where it will address measures that were tabled Thursday, as well as recommendations surrounding officer accountability and the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

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