Opinion: Md.’s Leadership on Police Reform Is an Important First Step

Coalition for Justice for Anton Black photos.

America faces a great crisis in policing, but within it lies an opportunity. In my more than two decades of public service, including the oversight of police misconduct investigations, I have seen the devastating consequences of our country’s failure to address core questions of law enforcement legitimacy and repair community-police relationships. Yet I am hopeful that this moment will be a time of fundamental transformation, with Maryland leading the way through significant legislative reforms.

In 2018, Maryland resident Anton Black was killed when three police officers and a bystander pinned him to the ground while he was handcuffed and shackled at the ankles. Thomas Webster IV, the first officer on the scene, had a deeply troubling history of mistreating Black residents while an officer in Dover, Del. Webster did not disclose the full particulars of his history, which included a staggering 29 prior use of force incidents and an assault charge.

Anton’s death could have been prevented in so many ways, ranging from stricter hiring requirements to changed use of force standards. From 2013 to 2019, Maryland police officers killed 138 people; yet since 2005, only six officers have been charged.

Our current policing crisis has fractured trust between communities and law enforcement. This is due, in part, to the extra layer of legal protection afforded police through the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR), and to the inability of the police to solve the complex issues we have tasked them with handling. It is not enough that the police solve crimes or improve community safety; they must do so in a constitutional manner, be fair to all regardless of race, and be accountable to the people they serve. Equity and accountability must be the drivers of reform. Only then will we begin to heal the painful rift that exists.

Last month, Maryland lawmakers took a critical step. Fifty years ago, the state was the first to enact LEOBR – it has thankfully become the first to repeal the measure. The arcane rules of LEOBR policies prohibited public access to information about the actions of law enforcement officers, shielded abusive cops, and prevented families from attaining justice on behalf of their slain loved ones.

The protections afforded to police by LEOBR came at an unthinkable price: communities of color suffered the most, losing dads and moms, brothers, sisters, and children to racial injustice in policing. LEOBR undermined trust in communities and that, in turn, led to weaker public safety, causing residents to feel that they couldn’t trust police because they wouldn’t be treated fairly.

To replace LEOBR, Maryland lawmakers have created new procedures for officer misconduct that give civilians a role in adjudicating alleged misconduct, through a process that relies on evidence and allows for appeals to a court of law. Legislators passed Anton’s Law, named for Anton Black, which will make the criminal investigations and misconduct records of police officers public information.

Lawmakers also made significant changes that will remove dangerous officers from duty. Webster became a Maryland officer after his violent history in Delaware. Webster was only the third officer in ten years to eventually have his certification revoked. Under this bill, the state will revoke the certification of officers convicted of perjury or a misdemeanor relating to truthfulness, as well as officers who are fired or resign while under investigation for serious misconduct or excessive force.

New policing applicants will be required to disclose their entire personnel and disciplinary record, and hiring agencies will have to certify that they have reviewed that record before they hire an officer.

Finally, Maryland lawmakers enacted one of the nation’s first comprehensive standards for the use of force: according to the new rules, force is only allowed when necessary.

Maryland’s leaders understand that it is time to reimagine our approach to law enforcement. I applaud the efforts of House Speaker Adrienne Jones, Senator Will Smith, and Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary, who shepherded these proposals to passage.

We know that legal changes alone will not solve our policing crisis overnight, in Maryland or in communities across the nation. As the recent tragedy in Leonardtown illustrates, more can be done to improve de-escalation training and repair frayed ties with community. The sweeping reforms passed in this recent session of the General Assembly are an encouraging start – now I hope to see Maryland continue its leadership on police reform.

— WALTER KATZ

The writer is vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic organization that focuses on several issues.