In Police Reform Debate, Senators Receive Pushback From ‘Triad of Interests’

Protesters gathered at Lawyer's Mall Thursday evening in a push for lawmakers to consider their police reform demands. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

Lawmakers who support police reform have found themselves in a conundrum: How does one pursue truly meaningful change that has a real chance at being codified? And is there a way to do so that doesn’t frustrate people on both sides of the issue?

They’ve received pushback from reform activists and pro-policing organizations, proving that the answer isn’t found so simply.

“One accuses me of being under the influence of the other,” Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) said during a phone interview.

Following the death of George Floyd in May, Smith, Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) and Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) took on the monumental task of introducing broad, progressive police reform legislation in the General Assembly.

And after months of tough conversations, long nights and lots of negotiation, the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 passed out of both the Judicial Proceedings Committee and the Senate chamber on largely bipartisan terms.

“I’m tremendously proud of the product that we produced,” Smith said Wednesday afternoon after the final bill of the package was passed on the Senate floor.

But, as is often the case with controversial bills, some of the legislation poised to whip Maryland’s policing system in a wildly different direction was dulled around the edges — largely through amendments offered by committee Democrats — and advocates were outraged.

“This is insulting and I call on the House of Delegates to do better,” Marion Gray Hopkins, president of the Coalition of Concerned Mothers, said in a statement after the package passed out of the Judicial Proceedings Committee last week. “I have been so hopeful that this go-round would make a real difference, but when you see how this Senate package waters down police accountability, it feels like a sucker punch. We deserve better, as constituents, Marylanders, and human beings.”

Greenbelt Mayor Colin Byrd (D) circulated a letter calling for Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) to remove Judicial Proceedings Committee Vice Chair Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery) from his leadership position after Waldstreicher introduced amendments which some say gutted Carter’s bill to repeal and replace the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

“On a cold Friday night, Sen. Waldstreicher teamed up with Republicans on the Judicial Proceedings Committee to introduce and support several amendments designed to gut the proposed repeal of the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, including amendments to allow the scrubbing of a police officer’s disciplinary record and to prevent the creation of civilian oversight panels,” Byrd wrote. “Simply put, someone who is so dedicated to undermining police reform, police accountability, and racial equity in the criminal justice system cannot be allowed to lead this committee.”

Maryland Matters reached out to Waldstreicher and the Senate president’s office for comment. Both declined.

Some disgruntled reform advocates have gone so far as to show up in lawmakers’ neighborhoods and outside of their homes.

Last weekend, the Silver Spring Justice Coalition and the Montgomery County Defund/Invest Coalition held a car rally that drove through Smith’s and Waldstreicher’s districts “to call attention to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee’s failure to pass meaningful policing reform legislation.”

According to a news release, protesters drove past the senators’ homes blaring car horns and brandishing signs because they felt their efforts to work with the senators through meetings and email and social media campaigns “had been ignored.”

“Rally-goers sought to remind Senators Waldstreicher and Smith of their accountability to their communities and to alert their constituents to the failure of their Senators to enact meaningful police reform,” the release reads.

Neither Smith nor Waldstreicher chose to comment on the car rally.

Ferguson condemned the advocates’ actions at the start of the Senate floor session Tuesday, saying that lawmakers’ homes, families and personal lives — including his own — should be off-limits.

Ferguson told the chamber that he and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) received an email from someone threatening to contact their family members, which he read on the floor:

“I sent you an email regarding key thoughts and recommendations on key issues that is being addressed in this legislative session,” Ferguson read. “I never so much as got an acknowledgment or thanks for my input. So since you do not answer me, I guess I will just share my concerns and recommendations with some of your family members in hopes that they can relay them to you.”

He said what happened to himself, Jones, Smith and Waldstreicher crossed “a red line.”

“All of us got into this work, we know that we’re going to get some tough criticism, we’re gonna get yelled at at times — that’s part of the job description. But our families don’t sign up for that,” Ferguson said. “And I just want to be very, very very clear that our words and actions are watched, but it is totally unacceptable for the use of family, or violating somebody’s privacy — family members’ privacy — in objective to accomplish some sort of legislative goal.”

Advocates disagree.

“I appreciate legislators not wanting their family homes protested. But, many protestors were defending their own loved ones, who were not ‘off limits’ to police violence,” attorney and advocate Toni Holness tweeted Tuesday. “There is common ground here, if our leaders would empathize with the pain of police brutality.”

And the pushback continues.

Protesters gathered in Annapolis on Thursday evening demanding that lawmakers listen to their demands to pass a full repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a constitutional use of force statute, an unamended version of Anton’s Law, re-establish local control of the Baltimore Police Department and remove police officers from public school campuses.

Police reform advocate Nikki Owens said Thursday evening that police brutality doesn’t lie in problems with management or training.

“This is a human issue” that people at the chief, executive and legislative level are all aware of, said Owens. Her cousin, William Green, was shot to death by a Prince George’s County law enforcement officer last January while handcuffed in a police car.

Owens asserted that lawmakers choose to ignore police accountability because of campaign donations from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).

“There’s a difference between a campaign donation and a bribe,” she explained. “And at this point, what they’re getting is bribes, not campaign donations.”

But Smith said that he’s also catching heat from police unions that say the package goes way too far — particularly the bill to repeal and replace the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

Before the bill was amended, Maryland FOP President Clyde Boatwright actively lobbied against it. And even after provisions taken directly from the current Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights were pumped back in, police unions have campaigned against its passage.

Under SB 627, police unions would be unable to enter into collective bargaining agreements that relate to officer investigations or discipline but will hold onto the ability to negotiate other portions of their contracts.

FOP Lodge 35 in Montgomery County has repeatedly tweeted at Smith, saying that he has stripped them of their collective bargaining rights and has put officers at risk.

“SB 627 ended collective bargaining rights for working women and men in blue. This was the worst vote in the history of JPR. @Willcsmithjr @jwaldstreicher @SenatorSusanLee @senatorjbailey @senatorhough”

https://twitter.com/BaltoCoFOP4/status/1362953078060810243/retweets/with_comments

Smith said he knew from the start that he’d face scrutiny from what he called the “triad of interests”: the activist community, rank and file police officers and organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police and the Chiefs and Sheriffs Association.

He also told Maryland Matters that he has held a “keen understanding” that the bills need a minimum of 29 Senate votes to overturn any potential vetoes from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R).

Maryland Matters reached out to the governor’s office for comment on Hogan’s stance regarding the police reform package but did not receive a response.

Ultimately, Smith said that he sought to execute an “earnest and honest attempt to do the right thing,” and tried to calculate how far he could push progressive reform before falling off the ledge.

And he hopes that, upon reflection, critics of the amended package will see that, too.

If the Senate doesn’t have the 29 votes and the bills are vetoed, “guess what happens?” Smith asked.

He answered his own question: “Nothing.”

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