Rollout has been uneven for accountability boards required by 2021 police reform effort
Although Maryland law enforcement agencies are required to provide mental health training to their officers, Abbie Ellicott said all police officers in her jurisdiction of Anne Arundel County need more.
More specifically, they need to incorporate an advanced training program known as Crisis Intervention Team, or C.I.T., which brings together law enforcement, health professionals and others when responding to mental health crises.
“Every police officer needs to know how to respond, in a respectful way, [to] a mental health crisis,” Ellicott, a county resident and psychologist in the county for 27 years, said last month during a listening session hosted by the county’s police accountability board. “How they get trained is above my paygrade, but every officer will be involved in dealing with a mental health crisis.”
Unfortunately, there remains a shortage of health professionals statewide, said Daniel Watkins, a member of the accountability board and director of behavioral health operations and nursing at Luminis Health.
Jeanette Ortiz, chair of the accountability board, which hosted its third listening session this year, said not all officers need the same level of advanced training in a specific area.
“Not all police officers should be school resource officers. Not everyone can work with children and students,” she said. “They have different skill sets. Some are patrol officers. Some are detectives. But they do have baseline [mental health] training.”
When the General Assembly approved police reform measures two years ago, it required all 23 counties and Baltimore City to form police accountability boards. Each jurisdiction had to begin establishing those boards last year to receive police misconduct complaints, provide policy advice to law enforcement agencies and help bridge the gap between police and residents.
Anne Arundel is among the first jurisdictions to implement a police accountability board and an administrative charging committee to review allegations from the public against police officers and recommend any disciplinary action.
The county’s accountability board and charging committee have held more than a dozen meetings so far, according to agendas on the county website.
Officers can appeal a decision before a local trial board, which convenes if an officer appeals a decision from the committee.
During the recent legislative session, Sen. Ron Watson (D-Prince George’s) and Del. Lesley Lopez (D-Montgomery) sponsored identical legislation that would have allowed municipalities also to create police accountability boards. However, the bills never made it out of their committees.
The police accountability board is part of the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 — House Bill 670 — which repealed the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and implemented other police reform measures. The law requires each county to “establish the budget and staff for a police accountability board.”
Under that law, as of July 1, accountability boards are required to hold quarterly meetings, meet with law enforcement leaders, identify trends in the disciplinary process in their jurisdiction and produce an annual report by Dec. 31. However, it doesn’t state that jurisdictions would be penalized if a board isn’t created or a report isn’t issued within a certain timeframe.
According to calendars on county and Baltimore City websites, about 10 jurisdictions’ police boards held their first meeting in the fall or this year.
Several counties such as Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Charles, Calvert, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s posted reports on their websites.
The Baltimore City Office of Equity and Civil Rights, which served as the designee because the 17-member police board wasn’t fully formed, posted a report that listed more than 300 police complaints filed to the city. After the City Council voted to confirm all the members, the police board held its first meeting in February.
In Dorchester, the county council appointed Paul Riordan on April 18 to serve as chair of the county’s police accountability board. Riordan represented the last person on the five-member board to be confirmed.
It’s unclear when the county’s police board will hold its first meeting because state law requires that each member must first receive training, including on ethics and implicit bias.
Jeff Powell, the county’s interim manager, admitted it’s been a struggle to get the board going because all responsibilities lay on the county. In addition, he said two people joined the County Council in December and must learn all aspects of this law.
“For smaller, or poorer counties, sometimes people don’t understand the struggles we go through. [It’s] a pretty big curve to get up and running…” Powell said last month. “We’re suffering everywhere trying to get citizens to serve on [various] boards and planning commissions. It’s just not as simple as writing the legislation and pushing it down.”
One challenge to why some counties took longer to get charging committees formed deals with training conducted by the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission, said Sarah Sample, associate policy director with the Maryland Association of Counties.
The training required committee members to participate 40 hours for an entire week, or five consecutive days.
“That was very difficult for a lot of counties to find individuals who had that kind of flexibility to be able to take off work for a week,” Sample said Thursday. “That was a bigger lift than most counties were originally expecting.”
Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee and helped lead to craft the police reform measures, said in interview Wednesday that state lawmakers didn’t see a need to penalize jurisdictions if they did not form accountability boards on time.
“We wanted to make sure everyone has the ample opportunity to adhere to them, but we expect everyone to adhere and move forward with the reforms that were made two years ago,” he said. “The jurisdictions had ample time, at this juncture, to develop and to staff the PABs. At this juncture, we certainly expect [county officials] be on board and serving the citizens of Maryland.”
Besides building trust between residents and police officers, Smith said the hope is for the police boards to analyze complaints that could decrease legal action and settlements because of police misconduct.
“You’ll see less lawsuits. You’ll see more trust in the community. Ultimately, it will be a cost savings and enhance trust,” he said. “These PAB’s not only receive complaints, but they make recommendations for better policing every year. That type of feedback and involvement is something we never had before. Hopefully that will lead to not only better policing practices, but a higher level of accountability and transparency. But ultimately a more fluid and strong relationship between public safety officials and the communities they serve.”
Getting groups in order
The number of police accountability board meetings held in each county varies.
Prince George’s County held its first meeting in November, but still published an annual report that lists the law enforcement agencies in the county, a summary of its board members and meetings convened last year and 43 complaints against officers filed between July 1 and Dec. 31 of 2022.
Prince George’s accountability board has a staff that consists of a program administrator, program associate and administrative aide. Marva Jo Camp, who worked as a legal advisor to other county boards and commissions, will serve as the board’s contract attorney, according to their report.
It cost the county more than $1 million to fund its police accountability board, administrative charging committee and to pay full-time workers, stipends for board members and operating and administrative costs.
The Prince George’s board held its 11th public session Wednesday.
In neighboring Montgomery County, the police accountability board convened more than two dozen times and held a listening session last month. It’s scheduled to hold its next meeting on Thursday.
“The members of our board seem to be taking their jobs very seriously…weighing in on policy matters,” said Joanna Silver, co-chair of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition’s policy committee in Montgomery County.
However, Silver said there remains a major concern that the accountability board doesn’t have an independent attorney to give legal advice.
“The same lawyer, our county attorney, who advises the police, cannot be the same one who advises the people who are overseeing the police. This doesn’t create the independent oversight that we need,” she said.
Other counties continue to work to get the policing boards and committees in order.
Garrett County’s charging committee plans to hold its first meeting at 6 p.m. May 22 to review “three incidents,” county administrator Kevin Null wrote in an email to Maryland Matters last week. He also wrote that the accountability board met March 15, but hasn’t scheduled a meeting for the second quarter.
The Allegany County Police Accountability Board held a special meeting Tuesday to appoint Sonya Cooper Lathrop to serve on the administrative charging committee.
Lee Beeman, the county’s attorney, said he’s helping out the PAB temporarily, and that the board held its first “substantial” meeting this year.
“We’re just helping out in the interim as they get things established,” he said. “There’s only two of us in the county attorney’s office. Once things are up and running, they’ll turn it over operationally and appoint additional counsel.”
Back in Anne Arundel County, its police accountability board plans to hold its fourth listening session May 22 at the Odenton Library.
The word “acting” in Moyah Panda’s executive director title could be removed by Monday if the County Council confirms her appointment. The previous director, Janssen E. Evelyn, became the county’s deputy chief administrative officer in January.
Ortiz, the county’s PAB chair, offered a message that can resonate in her jurisdiction and statewide.
“People have different thoughts on this law, but we need to be fair,” she said. “We need everybody involved.”