As Policing Bills Hit The Floor, Senators Reflect on a Difficult Legislating Process

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery County). File photo by Hannah Gaskill.

After months of work, a series of bills seeking to provide sweeping change to policing in Maryland was presented on the Senate floor Friday afternoon.

“The goal here is not to punish individual officers. This is about establishing true accountability, transparency and trust in the system of policing,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said at a Friday morning news conference.

“Here’s what we know: Right now, there is consensus that recent examples of racial disparities in policing, disproportionate rates of use of force, and excessive police brutality have proven that change is necessary; There is consensus that the current system of policing makes all of us less safe; And there is consensus that marginal change around the edges will not be sufficient to truly restore trust, accountability and transparency in law enforcement,” he explained. “That’s why we’re here today.”

The comprehensive package introduced on the Senate floor Friday seeks to:

The committee also intends to include a bill sponsored by Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City) that would re-establish local control of the Baltimore Police Department in the package.

Smith said that five of the bills passed out of the committee unanimously, and six had bipartisan support.

During a news conference Friday morning, Smith expressed pride for the careful labor that he and others, notably Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) and Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) poured into crafting the package, which began over the summer following the eruption of civil unrest that resulted from the nationally highlighted deaths of Black people at the hands of police.

Smith put names and faces to the victims of police brutality that are the impetus behind committee’s bills: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Amhaud Arbery. “And, in my district, Finan Behre, Robert White and Emmanuel Okutuga.”

“Heartbreaking stories like theirs are not new, especially for advocates in communities of color who’ve been calling for systemic police reform and accountability for decades,” he said. “But our country and our state finally had the political will to make these changes happen.”

In September, the trio introduced prototypes of the legislation that hit the floor Friday to their fellow committee members in an effort to “start the conversation early.” And after months of ongoing dialogue with stakeholders and nearly 30-hours of voting, their finished product is finally ready to be debated on the floor.

“In my time serving as chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, this has been some of the most important work that I’ve had the honor to work on,” he professed. “We cannot claim to be a state that serves, welcomes and sees [the] humanity of all people regardless of their race, ethnicity, ability or zip code if our system of policing and criminal justice do not pass muster.”

Smith, Carter and Sydnor acknowledged Friday that the process hasn’t been easy.

Thursday night, Sydnor found himself voting in opposition to the use of force bill, which he called “the most important of the package.”

Sen. Jill P. Carter

Carter grew so frustrated by amendments to the legislation she sponsored to limit no-knock warrants that she voted against its passage. And amendments to repeal and replace the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, also sponsored by Carter, led her to say that the bill should be retitled the “The Reinstatement of the LEOBR.”

Sydnor said that, while he didn’t agree with the final use of force bill, he believes that the package as a whole “moves us in the right direction.”

Carter, who has served in the General Assembly for more than 15 years, told the press that she’s “rarely seen legislation that is perfect,” but what the committee has achieved is better than what the state has had in the past.

“These issues are extremely emotional and difficult issues to grapple with,” she explained. “When you are advocating for human life and you feel that others are saying, ‘but’ ― ‘But what about these things? What about this?’ ― and ignoring the very core of the issue, which is saving human life and protecting human life by those that are paid, trained and trusted to serve and protect them? It’s hard,” she said.

Smith agreed with Carter that there’s no such thing as perfect legislation. But police reform coalitions and advocacy organizations have accused him of being a bedfellow of the Fraternal Order of Police and intentionally watering down certain bills.

“Once again this is an FOP-driven process and the community is told to settle for incremental change that will not save Black lives,” the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability wrote in a Friday news release. “Instead of listening to communities that have been harmed by police violence, the leadership in the Senate has once again caved to the police unions, who do not represent the broader interest of the senators’ voting constituency.”

The Montgomery County Defund/Invest Coalition and the Silver Spring Justice Coalition have organized a rally against Smith and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Vice Chair Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery) “for breaking their pledge to constituents to repeal the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR) and to replace it with a meaningful reform bill with civilian oversight.”

“As Chair and Vice-Chair of the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Smith and Waldstreicher had the power to transform policing and police accountability in Maryland,” the organizations wrote in a statement. “Instead of keeping faith with the people, they caved in to pressure and political contributions from police unions and joined with Senate Republicans to gut the LEOBR Repeal bill (SB 627). Contrary to public statements, their actions have ended any hope of real police reform coming out of the Maryland Senate.”

In spite of the frustration, Carter, a dedicated police reform advocate, said that while the committee’s package is not perfect, it still works towards her ultimate goal.

“This is a body of diversity ― of diverse views, and you have to take into account multiple considerations,” she said. “And so, all of that being said, as a whole, the package is something that I think will help protect and save human life, and so for those reasons I support the package.”

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