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Commentary Justice

Opinion: Baltimore County Council Undermines Police Accountability Reforms

Police Accountability
Stock.adobe.com photo by Chalabala.

By Ricarra Jones, Lydia Walther-Rodriguez and Daniel Golombek

The writers, respectively, are with 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, CASA and Baltimore County Progressive Democrats. The three co-signing organizations are members of the Baltimore County Coalition for Police Accountability.

With the passage of the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, the Maryland General Assembly replaced the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights with a new disciplinary framework mandating that all Maryland counties create a citizen-led police accountability board, an administrative charging committee and a trial board.

The intent of the bill is clear: we need more community involvement in the investigation and discipline of police officers accused of misconduct, and we must remove unwarranted impediments to administrative discipline of police officers who commit misconduct.

Unfortunately, in Baltimore County, elected leaders are failing to meet these important goals.

The County Council has put up roadblocks while considering a bill to implement a police accountability board such as releasing amendments shortly before the working session and making it impossible for the public to provide meaningful input despite community outcry to be more engaged process. The council is now set to vote on the bill on Thursday.

Dozens of letters and testimony from more than 30 community members were heard at a limited hearing. The community urged the council to adopt commonsense, community-backed amendments that represent best practices in the field of police accountability.

Yet, the community input was ignored, while the council instead added amendments to protect law enforcement.

The Baltimore County Coalition for Police Accountability was clear in asking for:

  • Independent legal counsel and investigatory powers for the PAB;
  • Community members who have been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement to be properly represented on the PAB, including a youth member and a community member who has a had previous conviction; and that
  • PAB members must not be current or former members of law enforcement or a family member of a law enforcement officer.

The current draft of the amended bill would allow former law enforcement officers to be part of the new PAB. If we are creating a true system of community oversight, it makes no sense to allow former law enforcement officers and family members of law enforcement officers to serve on the board, rather than members of the community who bear the brunt of police misconduct.

In Baltimore County, only 11% of civilian complaints against Baltimore County police officers were sustained; only 4% of civilian complaints of excessive force were upheld. The system isn’t working and these statistics underscore why a civilian-only board is so crucial for real accountability. It’s also important to note that police officers are already represented on the trial board and the charging commission.

Several Maryland counties, including Wicomico and Calvert, created police accountability boards without giving seats to police officers and their affiliates. Baltimore County residents deserve a system fostering true police accountability, not one that continues to allow police to police themselves.

The Baltimore County Council bill will also restrict people previously convicted of misdemeanors or felonies from serving for 10 years. During the work session, Councilmember Todd Crandell (R) said this 10-year ban did not go far enough and he plans to push to ban anyone with any previous conviction from ever serving on the board.

This punitive measure is an attempt to limit participation from overpoliced communities. Given Baltimore County’s disproportionately high rate of prosecution and incarceration of Black and Brown individuals, this amendment is unconscionable and must be struck from the bill.

Baltimore County police have been involved in two police shootings in the last month alone — one fatal and one that left the victim in critical condition. These incidents are not anomalies.

According to the 2021 Report from the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth and Victim Services, Baltimore County has among the worst records in the state for civilian deaths involving a law enforcement officer.

Police misconduct in Baltimore County has left residents dead and injured. While officers are cleared internally, their misconduct has cost the county millions of taxpayer dollars in settlements imposed by the courts.

The General Assembly took a major step forward last year in passing the legislation designed to build confidence in police misconduct investigations. The proposed Baltimore County bill undermines civilian oversight of police misconduct and erodes trust in government.

If the council refuses to add amendments that are community-backed and focus on the most critical features of a board, there will be no confidence in the process. The council must amend the bill to advance the goals of accountability, transparency and trust within the community.