Law enforcement officials, activists testify on police reform bills

By Lexie Schapitl and Eliana Block, Correspondents 

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Children wearing caution tape, the mayor of Baltimore, law enforcement officials and an HBO actress were among a crowd of people who visited Annapolis Tuesday as lawmakers considered several law enforcement reform bills.

About 280 people signed up to speak in front of the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, the large majority to testify about a handful of bills related to police behavior, rights and responsibilities.

Thirty-two bills — on matters related to police body cameras, traffic stops and SWAT teams — were scheduled for review at the 1 p.m. hearing. After four hours, the committee was still hearing testimony about police-accountability legislation.

A state commission, the Public Safety and Policing Workgroup, in January made recommendations about changes to police procedures and the review of grievances.

Police brutality in Maryland became a national issue in April, after a Baltimore man, Freddie Gray, died in police custody.

Among the dozens of people packed into the hearing room were some familiar faces.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake testified in support of several bills, including a measure to suspend officers convicted of certain misdemeanors.

Actress Sonja Sohn, who portrayed Detective Shakima Greggs in the Baltimore crime drama “The Wire,” also attended the hearing.

Several police chiefs testified that they wanted to maintain control over the discipline of their officers.

I. Vince Canales of the Fraternal Order of Police said he has concerns with some provisions that would edit the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and may be overreaching.

“This process has been mutually beneficial and has worked for all members. Even when we lose … we respect the process,” he said. “We would love to see (the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights) remain intact as is at this point, however we are aware that there are going to be potential changes coming.”

Frank Boston III, an attorney on behalf of the Fraternal Order of Police, said while issues with police action do arise, the current Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights “works, has worked, (and) continues to work,” and does not protect officers who commit criminal actions.

Others said concerns about officer accountability was the reason they came to Annapolis.

Roberta McLeod Reeves, 71, testified that in the mid-90s she was beaten by three officers at a sheriff’s department office in Prince George’s County and suffered a cut arm, smashed knee and face, and was deprived of her asthma medicine while jailed in her Easter Sunday outfit.

McLeod Reeves, of Upper Marlboro, supports proposed reforms, but said the legislation needs “some tweaking” to adequately address the problem of police accountability.

“You’re just putting a rubber band around a broken box,” she said. “It’s not going to make a difference.”

Gisela Mendoza, of Owings Mills, said she came to Annapolis by bus to witness testimony with her mother and some friends. As a Hispanic involved with CASA, an organization that advocates for Latino and immigrant communities in Maryland, Mendoza, 21, said she was concerned about the right of police to choose who is involved in their trial boards.

“We feel as though policemen are supposed to help us out and keep us safe but yet they’re not really doing that, and it’s a whole nationwide kind of thing,” she said. “I don’t want to be scared every time I go out that because of my color that something bad might happen to me.”

Guillermo Martinez, a 16-year-old CASA member, skipped classes at Owings Mills High School to show his support. He hung around the hallway outside an adjacent overflow room, where live footage of the hearing played for the hundred or so who couldn’t fit into the committee room.

“We’re here to fight all day, even if it means staying all night,” said Martinez, who arrived at 9 a.m. on one of CASA’s three organized buses.

A man who identified himself as DevRock, a hip hop artist, arrived around 8 a.m. for a noon press conference before the committee hearing.

He said he serves as minister of culture for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore-based group concerned with police accountability and brutality, and came to Annapolis to argue for changes to be made to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to increase accountability.

“There’s no good arguments. There’s no common sense argument of why it is that you can’t have a civilian on a review board, why can’t you get an outside agency to do an investigation,” he said. “It is definitely shown that people of color are dying at the hands of police officers and those issues need to be investigated.”

Donna Brown of Making Change, an advocacy group for youth charged as adults, said that as a child she remembers calling every police officer “Officer Friendly.” Now she’s not so trusting.

“I have a son and a daughter, both are eclectic folks — they’re beautiful people — but they just don’t wear suits and ties when they walk down the street, and so when they’re confronted by a police officer, there’s a bias that’s immediately imposed upon them,” Brown said. “I want police accountability, but I also want a connection.”

She said that she was prepared to stay until 8 p.m. before driving home to Baltimore City.

Encouragement from Jews United for Justice came in the form of caution tape. Member Claire Landers and Baltimore Director Molly Amster proudly wore sashes of neon yellow as they paced outside the overflow room. The sashes, Landers explained, represent their cautionary support for the Public Safety and Policing Workgroup bill.

“We’re supporting the bill with amendments,” Landers said. “The current bill allows police to choose their own trial board and escape any kind of accountability and leaves the public in the dark about the process and the outcome.”

Capital News Service is a student-staffed news wire and broadcast news service operated by the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism. © 2016 Capital News Service. All Rights Reserved.

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