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Justice

Advocates, Lawmakers Dismayed Over Elrich’s Police Accountability Bill

A bill from Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) to establish a county police accountability board was introduced during a county council meeting Tuesday, and it gave several council members heartburn. Screenshot by Hannah Gaskill.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a comment from the county executive’s office.

Advocates and lawmakers expressed disappointment over a newly introduced police accountability measure at the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday, saying there was no opportunity for community buy-in.

“Because there was no community input, the bill perpetuates law enforcement’s control of police discipline, excluding the communities most impacted by policing,” Joanna Silver, policy committee co-chair for the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, said in a statement Monday. “The community needs more than a few minutes at a Council hearing to fix this fatally flawed bill.”

Proposed by Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D), the legislation in dispute seeks to cap the number of people who serve on the county’s police accountability board, which was established under reform legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year.

A top aide to Elrich suggested that the bill could be tweaked over the next few weeks.

The summary of Elrich’s bill introduced Tuesday states that state legislation “is silent as to the number of members of the [Police Accountability Board].”

As such, the county executive has proposed the board be capped at five members — all appointed by him and approved by the county council. Each appointee would serve three-year terms, with a two-term limit.

According to the bill’s language, each member must have experience with:

  • The management of a law enforcement agency;
  • The evaluation of citizen complaints against police officers; or
  • Personnel disciplinary proceedings.

Active-duty police officers are not permitted to serve on the board.

In a letter signed by 19 community organizations and sent to Elrich Sunday evening, advocates requested that he withdraw the legislation, noting that, under state statute, members of the county’s police accountability board appoint other integral players in the investigatory and disciplinary process for law enforcement.

In a news release, the ACLU of Maryland and the Silver Spring Justice Coalition said their request was ignored.

Elrich had the bill introduced before the committee Tuesday, giving several county council members heartburn.

“It is a disappointing start to bringing the community more into the process for accountability,” Councilmember Hans Riemer (D) said in a text exchange during the meeting. Riemer is one of three candidates challenging Elrich in the 2022 Democratic primary for county executive.

Councilmember William Jawando (D) told his fellow legislators that he was also disappointed in the lack of community engagement during the bill’s drafting process, saying the legislation “falls short as introduced and the kind of public buy-in that’s needed.”

“The good news is, thanks to our county charter and the way legislation moves, we’re going to be able to use this bill or crumple it up or create a new one or make changes to it, update it, and we’ll have a thorough robust community engagement process,” Jawando said Tuesday afternoon.

Under House Bill 670, which passed through the General Assembly this year, the governing bodies of each jurisdiction are mandated to create police accountability boards and administrative charging committees to investigate and determine the outcomes of police misconduct complaints levied by members of the public.

Complaints may be filed directly through the policing agency or with the county’s police accountability board, which would have three days to forward the complaint to the police department for investigation.

The appropriate agency would then send their findings to the ​​county’s administrative charging committee. This committee, made up of a designee from the police accountability board, two civilians the board appoints and two civilians appointed by the county executive, would determine if disciplinary charges should be filed against the officer subject to the misconduct complaint.

If the committee determines that disciplinary charges are appropriate, it must recommend a disciplinary action within the scope of the matrix provided by the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission. The chief or sheriff would impose that disciplinary action or a more stringent one than was proposed by the board.

If the officer challenges the findings, they have the ability to appear before a three-person trial board comprised of an active or retired administrative law judge or a retired district court or circuit court judge, a civilian chosen by the police accountability board, and a police officer of the same rank of the officer facing the charges.

House Bill 670 takes effect on July 1, 2022, but agencies with collective bargaining contracts that go past that date may maintain their policies until those contracts run out.

The new disciplinary process provided under House Bill 670 will apply to the Montgomery County police and sheriff’s departments on July 1, 2023.

According to the Mapping Police Violence Database, 13 people have died while in the custody of the Montgomery County Police Department and one person died in the custody of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department between 2013 and 2021.

“Because the bill is expedited, it may not receive the necessary racial equity and social justice impact assessment, and that is unacceptable,” Yanet Amanuel, the interim public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland, said in a statement.

“This is an introduction,” Montgomery County Council President Gabe Albornoz (D) said Tuesday. “And as has always been the case, we will have a series of work sessions in committee and deliberate and discuss this particular issue.”

Rather than holding it during the day, Albornoz said that the council would schedule a public hearing on the night of Jan. 11, 2022 for Elrich’s bill to allow more community members to testify.

“We agree with the comments, largely, that there needs to be additional public input and that there needs to be changes to even what was submitted,” Earl Stoddard, the assistant chief administrative officer for the Montgomery County executive’s office, said during a Tuesday evening phone interview. “We expect that there will be changes to this bill.”

Stoddard said that the short timeline between now and the bill’s implementation on July 1, 2022, impeded Elrich’s ability to convene with advocates, community stakeholders and the Fraternal Order of Police before the bill was introduced.

“Given all those things that needed to occur for the effect date that the legislature created, we felt the pressure to begin the process as quickly as possible,” he said.

Stoddard added that it’s expected that Elrich will propose amendments to the bill, and that the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission will provide more guidance regarding accountability boards in the coming months.

“We are going to move forward with an engagement process with stakeholders, publicly, to gain feedback and will introduce amendments to the bill that’s before the county council at this point, and look forward to the engagement process that they also will conduct with public,” Stoddard said.

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