Senate Panel Votes Out Use of Force Bill, Completes Police Reform Package

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) sits in front of committee vice chair Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery) and fellow committee member Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City). File photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

After nearly 30 hours of voting and two weeks of impassioned debate, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee passed the final bill in its sweeping police reform package out of the committee late Thursday night.

The package is expected to be presented on the Senate floor on Friday afternoon.

Judicial Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) thanked his members for pushing through what he described as “the most difficult problem set I think any of us have worked on since we’ve been in the General Assembly.”

“Obviously our work is not done, but I’m tremendously proud of the package that we’ve put forward,” Smith said. “This is, by far, the most comprehensive reform with regard to policing in Maryland that we’ve seen in over 40-years, and it’s something that I think we can all be very proud of.”

After voting was delayed for over six hours, the committee passed an amended bill to establish a statewide use of force policy by a margin of 9-2. The only dissenting votes came from Sen. Jack Bailey (R-St. Mary’s) and Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County).

“The other night, I made a comment that’s talking about the use of force,” Sydnor told his fellow committee members before the vote. “And I’d like to thank everyone for doing the work that you all did and there’s a lot of good things that I see that are in this bill. However, I still have some concerns about …. the definition of excessive force.”

The bill’s language mandates that an officer intervene if they know “or reasonably should know” that another officer is using or intends to use excessive force. For days, Republicans pushed back against Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), the bill’s sponsor, for an example she had used.

Bailey asked during a work session Monday how someone could intuit what someone else “intends” to do.

Carter explained that there isn’t any way to get into the mind of another person, but that officers have ways of communicating with each other that clearly express their intent.

“I mean like, ‘Let’s go jack him up. There’s a Black guy with a knapsack walking down the street, let’s go jack him up.’ That would be an example,” she said.

“What does that mean?” asked Bailey.

“Let’s go accost him; let’s go push him to the ground; let’s go illegally search him — it could mean a number of things,” Carter responded.

It was clear she was using the term as a placeholder for an expletive she didn’t want to say before the committee. But Republican members could not let the concept go, and pressed the issue even harder on Tuesday night.

Sydnor, often reserved, had had enough.

“I think Senator Carter with her bill — in spite of what everyone’s saying about the language — she’s trying to establish a floor for all citizens in this state and how they’re being treated,” he asserted Tuesday. “The fact of the matter is people in her community, people in my community — people who look like me — are not treated in the same manner.”

Sydnor compared examples between the mostly white mob of U.S. Capitol rioters who escaped largely unscathed after the Jan. 6 attack, and Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died in 2019 after he was confronted and subdued by Aurora, Colo., police officers while walking down the street.

“So if you don’t like the words, I mean fine, let’s work on the words,” he said sternly. “But my thing is there’s a problem with people who look like me getting an unnecessary use of force, and that’s what we’re trying to solve here.”

Sydnor’s frustration persisted Thursday night as he read to the committee from an article published in The Regulatory Review about excessive force and the precedent set by the Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Connor, a 1989 case that attempted to set a reasonable standard for excessive use of force.

“The courts apply the standard for excessive force in such a demanding fashion that it makes it difficult to convict police officers who kill unarmed civilians,” Sydnor read. “Although about 1,000 people die each year in their encounters with police, one expert found that, since 2005, ‘only 110 law enforcement officers nationwide have been charged with murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting.’ Those prosecutions resulted in a mere 42 convictions, although 18 cases are still pending.”

Sydnor began to get emotional.

“This standard that we’re adopting … states that excessive force means ‘force that an objectively reasonable law enforcement officer would conclude exceeds what is necessary to gain compliance, control a situation or protect a law enforcement officer or others from harm under the totality of circumstances.’” Sydnor paused briefly, his voice quavering as he continued. “Yesterday, when my good friend, Senator [Christopher R.] West (R-Baltimore County), made his amendment, I thought: ‘Once we put in this language surrounding an objectively reasonable law enforcement officer and what they would conclude’ — to me, we just reverted back to why we’re here. And to me, that’s really an extremely large weakness in this bill.”

The bill was officially passed moments later.

In a symbolic move, Senate Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) put forth the favorable motion on the bill, which Carter seconded.

The pair had butted heads several times as they moved the package through the committee, but Hough conceded that friends often bicker, and said committee members should be proud of the groundbreaking legislating they had crafted over the past two weeks.

“It’s now, in Maryland, going to be a crime for police officers to fail to intervene; a failure to report; there’s a new crime of excessive force — it’s a brand-new criminal penalty; we undid last night and we went back and made it a criminal penalty for failure to render aid; and there’s a brand-new power of the Maryland Police Training [and Standards] Commission to decertify,” Hough said. “This is a huge, huge step forward for law enforcement accountability.”

At the close of its final voting session, the committee collapsed into a scene reminiscent of the end credits of an episode of “Saturday Night Live”: the air in the committee room was electric as senators clapped and fell into pleasant, huddled conversation.

Some took pictures. Those who had feuded hugged: First Carter with Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Vice Chair Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery), then with Smith, then with Hough.

“So you see? It’s all a lovefest up in here,” Carter laughed as she left the committee room with Bailey. “We love each other and everybody.”

“That’s good,” Hough told the press. “That’s good work.”

“That’s Senate work.”

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