Panel recommends changes to laws protecting police officers

ANNAPOLIS, Md. —A legislative panel in Annapolis recommended on Monday changes to state law and standards to weaken some of the special protections police officers have when accused internally of misconduct.

The group has been working for months, trying to balance calls for stronger reforms with police unions who like things the way they are.

Proposals to reform how police are held to account within their own departments have had trouble getting anywhere in Annapolis. Will these proposals that are focused on opening up the police disciplinary process turn out any differently?

At issue is a state law called the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. Maryland was the first state in the nation to put one in place. It offers police officers certain protections when they are accused of misconduct, excessive force and other allegations that could lead to disciplinary action and dismissal.

Critics argue the law gives too many protections and makes it too hard for bad officers to be fired.

Late Monday, a legislative panel proposed a number of changes that include opening trial boards to the public, extending time for the public to file complaints and reducing from 10 days to five days for officers to get a lawyer.

The panel also recommends putting mental health professionals and public members on Maryland Police Training Commission, which is currently made up strictly of law enforcement members.

“We want to add mental health, we want to add lay members from the public so that there is a different box they can think out of. Right now, they get their ideas from each other. I think the most important thing we can do is better train police officers,” Baltimore City Delegate Curt Anderson said.

The panel spent a lot of time deciding whether to recommend mandatory psychiatric evaluation of officers. It went ahead with it but left out how often they should occur.

The panel approved 22 recommendations and will present them to the Legislature to consider. Police union officials are watching closely.

“These are recommendations that have come out. We are not prepared to say one way or another. We are fighting anything just yet. We want to see what the actual bills look like before we decide what we support and don’t support,” said Vince Canales, president of the state Fraternal Order of Police.

One recommendation approved Monday would require police departments to tell people who complain about officers the outcome of the internal investigation. That would be big change for departments like Baltimore’s, where the whole process is secret.

The panel also approved a recommendation that would give the FOP a guaranteed seat on every trial board. That point does not sit well with the ACLU.

“It makes one questions just who exactly the legislators think should be in charge of police departments: police chiefs or the unions that represents police officers,” ACLU attorney David Rocah said.

The Baltimore Police Department’s internal affairs department handled more than 1,200 complaints filed in the past 2 1/2 years.

A recent 11 News I-Team analysis found that 9 percent of those claims moved forward in the discipline process.

WBAL-TV 11 News reporter Kai Reed contributed to this story.