Legislating Police Reform in 2021: ‘We Really Do Have to Seize This Moment’

Police Reform
Photo by Logan Weaver on Unsplash

None of this is new for Nikki Owens.

“Nothing has changed for my family,” Owens said through tears at a news conference this week. “I’m still up at two in the morning on phone calls with my aunt, video chatting while she cries. His children are still mourning and we’re all still mourning. Nothing has changed.”

Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of the death of her cousin, William Green, who was shot six times by a Prince George’s County law enforcement officer last January while he was handcuffed in a police car.

“My cousin’s death didn’t change anything,” Owens said as she quietly wept. “My cousin sat in the car handcuffed and was shot six times. My cousin died in fear. My cousin died, probably confused as to why this man shot him. My cousin died worse than a dog.”

Green was one out of a handful of police custody deaths in Maryland in 2020, and one out of 1,127 across the nation, according to the Mapping Police Violence Database.

The U.S. has had a major reckoning with systemic and lethal racism following a series of nationally highlighted police killings of Black people in 2020, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks. And despite calls from many constituents, Maryland lawmakers did not reconvene early to address these inequities in public safety.

The Maryland General Assembly is now back in session with a slew of bills and drafted policies in the Senate and House aimed at reforming the way that law enforcement officers interact with the communities they serve.

But following a year rife with nationwide civil unrest and a pandemic that has exposed long-suffered economic, housing and health disparities, will these policies remain a priority as the General Assembly juggles myriad pressing issues?

‘Real change and real reform’

Following Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May, Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore City) convened the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland to make recommendations for a reform bill.  

The workgroup, chaired by Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard), met eight times and finalized reform recommendations in October. They include:

  • Requiring all police agencies in the state to use body cameras by 2025;
  • Creating a statewide police use-of-force statute;
  • Mandating independent investigations of police use-of-force incidents;
  • Requiring mental health assessments of all police recruits before hiring and throughout their career;
  • Giving control of the Baltimore City Police Department to the city;
  • Creating a study to determine what emergency calls can be diverted from police agencies;   
  • Requiring periodic physical agility assessments of police officers;
  • Providing free tuition for criminology or criminal justice students in the University System of Maryland if they pledge to serve as an officer for at least five years;
  • Requiring the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission to create an implicit bias test for police recruits and establish an implicit bias training program for current officers;
  • Repealing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights; and
  • Creating a transparent police accountability process and an early warning system to identify officers with problematic behavior.

Atterbeary called the workgroup’s product “bold” and “creative.”

Police accountability workgroup Chairwoman Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard). Screenshot.

“They’re not just from a checklist ― a laundry list; There was actual thought into how we could create real change and real reform,” she told Maryland Matters in a phone interview. “The workgroup recommendations really are driven from what the members of the workgroup wanted to do and what were the priorities of the group as a whole.”

The one thing the workgroup was unable to agree upon, said Atterbeary, was the jurisdiction over independent investigations. 

Democrats on the committee largely concurred that the attorney general should be responsible for overseeing misconduct investigations. 

Noting that the attorney general is a political position, the workgroup’s Republicans said no.

Atterbeary said that she’s sponsoring a separate bill to allow the attorney general to prosecute misconduct cases. Should he decline, local state’s attorneys would be able to take the cases.

Other workgroup members are sponsoring police reform legislation, separate from the panel’s workproduct.

Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) will present legislation to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, and Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) is sponsoring her own use-of-force statute.

Jones introduced the workgroup’s recommendations as an omnibus bill Tuesday. As such, Atterbeary called her colleagues’ decisions to go their own way “disappointing.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that members of the workgroup who voted for all of these recommendations ― who were incredibly supportive, who made comments during the hearings that they couldn’t believe that we were actually going to recommend to repeal LEOBR ― I mean I think it’s disappointing that they would put in their own bills knowing that we were doing a workgroup bill so, you know, we’ll, we’ll see what happens,” she said.

Asked why he chose to file separately from the workgroup, Acevero told Maryland Matters in a phone interview that he advocated for its repeal before he was elected in 2018, and noted that during his brief time as a state delegate he has introduced several iterations of this bill.

“Having served on the House workgroup on police accountability in Maryland ― having spoken to, met with and heard from victims, to subject matter experts, to attorneys, to advocates, to opponents ― it is clear that the full repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights is necessary in order for us to reimagine public safety,” he said. 

The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, in short, provides due process protections for officers during investigations that could result in demotion or dismissal and lays out a uniform procedure for misconduct investigations across the state’s 148 police departments, preempting local laws.

Police chiefs and sheriffs have decried the statute’s potential repeal, saying they’re unclear how officer discipline would be handled if the law were to no longer be in place.

“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,” Charles County Sheriff Troy Berry (D) said at a workgroup meeting in late summer.

But advocates say the LEOBR allows police investigations to remain shrouded in secrecy and grants protections to officers that are not available to others under investigation for potential criminal wrongdoing. Acevero said that, even if it were repealed, police officers would still have due process rights.

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

“I think it’s important to note that if we were to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights tomorrow, that law enforcement officials would have the same due process rights as state and local public employees,” he said. “So this argument that we need to replace the LEOBR with something when what it would provide is parity for law enforcement and other public employees is not a convincing one in my opinion.”

Acevero applauded Jones for convening the workgroup, but believes there are glaring problems with policing that weren’t addressed, like reform of the Maryland Public Information Act, and the removal of police officers from public school grounds.

At a news conference hosted by the ACLU of Maryland on Tuesday, Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery) announced that she is sponsoring a bill that would shift the $10 million in state funds to keep resource officers in schools to counseling and restorative justice practices.

Wilkins said it’s a companion bill to Acevero’s legislation that would prohibit school districts from contracting with law enforcement agencies to station police in public schools.

Acevero is also reintroducing Anton’s Law, which this session seeks to reform the Maryland Public Information Act to allow certain police misconduct records to be available for public inspection.

The bill is named after Anton Black, a 19-year-old Black youth who died after being in police custody on the Eastern Shore in 2018.

Jones introduced a similar bill to reform the Maryland Public Information Act Tuesday.

Acevero also believes more needs to be done to root out white nationalism in state and local police departments. He pointed to an unredacted 2006 FBI Intelligence Assessment that U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) released to the public last September, which found, among other revelations, that white supremacist groups look to infiltrate law enforcement agencies as a means of protecting themselves.

Acevero told Maryland Matters he plans to introduce legislation to address white supremacy in policing during the 2021 session.

“My hope is that my colleagues and the leadership of the General Assembly would move from pandering and ‘performative wokeness’ to legislating and acting on these very important police reform measures,” he said. 

“My party often acknowledges the important role of Black voters, particularly in political power in our state. Well, I’m here to say that Black people’s love language is policy,” Acevero asserted. “And so now is the time for us to implement these very important policies … to ensure that we’re showing those communities that they’re valued, they’re important and we’re willing to legislate on their behalf.”

‘The devil is always in the details’

In an unprecedented move, Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) held three days of interim bill hearings in the fall where he, Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) and Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) workshopped 15 pieces of legislation they planned to introduce in 2021, including:

  • Implementing a statewide use-of-force standard;
  • Eliminating no-knock warrants;
  • Creating a duty to intervene and a duty to report when officers witness misconduct;
  • Limiting law enforcement agencies’ ability to purchase surplus military equipment;
  • Providing whistleblower protections for officers who report corrupt or negligent behavior;
  • Allowing police body camera footage to be reviewed by civilians under the Public Information Act;
  • Presuming testimony provided by a law enforcement officer who purposefully neglects to turn their body cameras on or turns them off at a crime scene is inadmissible;
  • Ordering the state prosecutor to investigate officer misconduct; and
  • Repealing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

Following those interim bill hearings in late September, Smith said that he, Carter and Sydnor went into communities to speak with stakeholders, and have had conversations with law professors and practitioners, interest groups and law enforcement, to gather data to incorporate into the bills.

Some of the legislation presented in the fall has since been consolidated into bigger bills, and many of them echo the recommendations from the House workgroup. Several were presented before the Judicial Proceedings Committee last week, and more are on the hearing list for Thursday.

Smith said that, in large part, there’s consensus between what both chambers intend to file.

Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

“I think there’s a lot of agreement,” he told Maryland Matters in a phone interview last week. “Obviously the fine details need to be worked out, and the devil is always in the details, but, broad strokes, we’re about 90% ― 85% aligned with what the House has said that they’re going to put forward.”

Smith said that his committee’s cohort of pro-police reform legislators have worked closely with the Legislative Black Caucus and other Black senators to ensure their input was incorporated.

But other members of the Senate have put forth police reform legislation, too. 

Notably, Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County) introduced a sweeping bill that would require agencies with more than 20 officers to use body cameras by October 2023, re-establish city control of the Baltimore City Police Department, create an early intervention system for officers with problematic behavior and alter police training tactics and the application process for no-knock warrants.

In regards to other reform legislation like West’s, Smith said those bills will be looked at carefully, and that some of their better aspects may be pulled into the Senate package.

“I said every idea will rise and fall on its own merits,” Smith said, “but we’ll take a look at it and incorporate what makes sense and jettison what doesn’t.” 

‘We have to do it this session’

Both Smith and Atterbeary expressed confidence in the legislature’s ability to pass meaningful police reform policy this session, saying that if there was ever a time, it’s now.

“It’s not going to happen next session ― that wind will have shifted,” said Atterbeary. “So if we’re going to do anything we have to do it this session.”

“I’m not gonna say it’s gonna be easy but I am confident that, literally, this is the right moment and the only moment in which we could push forward this type of deep systemic and meaningful change,” Smith explained. “And I think that we really do have to seize this moment because I think that our policy window, so to speak, really closes after this session.”

Several of the reform bills pending this year have failed to move forward for years in the General Assembly, and advocates are stressing the need for substantive changes to state law.

“America’s policing system is not broken. It’s working exactly how it was designed to from its inception in the 19th century when white people were recruited to track down and catch Black people who were enslaved, to now when police disproportionately track, brutalize and kill people,” said Yanet Amanuel, a public policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “America’s policing system’s roots were birthed and are grounded in white supremacy.”

“Legislators owe it to the victims of police violence and their families to move their Black Lives Matter tweets and posts into action this legislative session,” she asserted. “Power over law enforcement must shift into the hands of the community, and we must end the failed practice of the police policing themselves.” 

“Anything that doesn’t achieve this is not enough.”

Carter said that “legislative failures of the past” have led to the spate of police custody deaths Maryland has seen in the last few years.

“We did not need to witness the killing of George Floyd to understand the gravity of this problem right here in Maryland,” said Carter. “When we abolished the death penalty in Maryland, we should have also made it clear that extrajudicial killings must also be repealed; that we will not allow law enforcement officers to act as arrestor, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner on the street.” 

Ultimately, Owens said survivors of police brutality are looking for accountability.

I would just like to ask lawmakers: What is your problem?” Owens asked. “Why are you OK watching us die in the street like this? Why are you OK watching people, that you have some level of control over, do this without any type of disciplinary action?”

“I want William Green’s name to be nationwide. I want what happened to him to be nationwide,” she said. “I want it to just be well known in PG County so that when PG County goes to vote, they vote for people who make sure that they’re not the next William Green ― that their child is not the next William Green.”

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