Advocates in Baltimore hope for police reform, finally, from Annapolis

Four days before Martin Luther King Day, a year ago, a coalition of activists, organizations and residents marched in Annapolis to demand legislation ensuring greater accountability for law enforcement before the citizens of Maryland.

When the session closed on April 13, 2015, not a single substantive change to laws impacting police discipline or accountability had passed, with a number of attempts dying in committee and never receiving a vote.

Six days later, on April 19, Freddie Gray succumbed to the injuries he sustained while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, leading to weeks of demonstrations and unrest that included a National Guard deployment and a mandatory curfew for Baltimore City residents.

Today, many of those same activists and organizations who marched last January will be back in Annapolis, again demanding greater accountability for law enforcement, hoping that the 2016 legislative session, being held in the shadow of last April’s unrest, might yield different results.

“I see the prospects [for reform] being hopeful at this point,” said Rev. Dr. S. Todd Yeary, political action chair for the Maryland NAACP, and among the advocates who fought for reform last session.

Protesters confront Baltimore police near Camden Yards last April. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

Protesters confront Baltimore police near Camden Yards last April. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

“I think what we’re going to find out is whether or not the General Assembly wants Maryland to take the lead on reform, or just defer to other jurisdictions stepping forward in [what is] really a national conversation,” he said.

Challenging LEOBR, Again

Yeary cites the support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) among his reasons for optimism. The legislative leaders are responsible for convening a work group in the aftermath of last April to study law enforcement issues and propose recommendations for reform to be considered this legislative session.

That work group, which held public hearings during the summer and fall, has put forth a number of recommendations. Chief among them is changing Maryland’s notorious Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, (LEOBR) 10-day rule, which allows officers 10 days to obtain legal counsel before they can be questioned in an administrative disciplinary investigation.

Enacted in 1974, Maryland’s LEOBR is said by critics to be one of the most extreme in the country. Police union officials said the policy, designed to provide due process rights to officers, needs no revision.

The working group is proposing reducing that 10-day grace period under Maryland’s LEOBR to five days.

Open Trial Boards to the Public?

Other recommendations of the work group include:

• Expanding the statute of limitations for civilians to file complaints against an officer from the current 90 days from the date of an alleged incident of misconduct to one year and one day.

• Opening internal police trial boards to the public

• Striking language in the LEOBR that bars civilian participation in police trial boards.

Yeary believes that the opening up of trial boards to potential civilian participation is among the changes that, were they to become law, could lead to substantive results where law enforcement accountability and police-community relations are concerned.

A man addresses police during April protest outside the Western District. (Photo by Fern Shen)

A man addresses police during April protest outside the Western District. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Sara Love, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, agrees that allowing more robust civilian participation in disciplinary and investigatory processes are among the recommendations that –  more so than the much talked about 10 and 90 day rules – could result in substantive change.

But Love also argues that the work group’s recommendations could go further.

Police Policing Themselves?

Several important issues remain unaddressed by the legislative panel’s recommendations, Love said. Topping her list are the rules governing when an officer may be suspended without pay. Currently, this is only possible when an officer has been criminally charged with a felony.

Another problem, Love said, is the requirement that the make-up of internal police trial boards be subject to mandatory arbitration, which in Love’s view allows the Fraternal Order of Police, Maryland’s police union, too much control over the disciplinary process.

“You’re giving an organization whose purpose is to protect their officers the veto authority over any discipline,” said Love.

Same Bills Died Last Year

Even with the urgency added by the April uprising, some observers say, the failure to pass any reforms during last year’s legislative session looms over the quest for reform about to unfold in Annapolis over the next three months.

In 2015, many of the very measures now being proposed by the police reform workgroup were submitted as legislation by Del. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City) – but they never made it out of committee.

According to Carter, the law enforcement community was already prepared to make concessions on issues like the 10 and 90 day rules prior to the end of last session.

“It was the General Assembly that refused to entertain the changes,” said Carter, noting that House and Senate leadership did not make law enforcement reform a priority last session.

Thousands marched in the streets of Baltimore last April calling for police reform. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Thousands marched in the streets of Baltimore last April calling for police reform. (Photo by Fern Shen)

This session, the police are girded for a fight. Frank D. Boston, a lobbyist for the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, opened his testimony at a workgroup session last July with the assertion that the LEOBR should not be changed, suggesting to the NAACP’s Yeary that reform advocates can expect a fight over any proposed reforms.

The question remains whether General Assembly leadership will move forcefully behind reform efforts and push back against one of the more influential forces in current Maryland politics, the police and their unions.