Maryland lawmakers seek to reform policing practices, protect mentally ill

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After more than 14 hours of testimony on Tuesday, the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland began reviewing possible recommendations for the 2021 legislative session.

“We’ve heard from the community, we’ve heard from law enforcement,” said Workgroup Chairwoman Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard). “We know that Maryland is no different than the rest of the country, and we need sweeping police reform and we need it now.”

In coming weeks, the workgroup plans to address legislative recommendations surrounding police accountability, body-worn cameras, community oversight, the decertification process for errant officers, independent investigations and prosecutions, officer mental health evaluations, disciplinary policy, diversifying recruitment and creating a statute or standard for the use of deadly or excessive force.

Members of the workgroup brought recommendations, many of which echoed draft legislation that members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee presented during hearings last week.

Several House lawmakers called for completely repealing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — a decades-old law that provides special due process protections to law enforcement officers facing misconduct allegations.

The controversial law has been debated in the House workgroup and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Michael Davey, general counsel for the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, told the House workgroup that if the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights were repealed, officers would still be subject to due process, but each of the state’s police departments could have different disciplinary procedures outside of the General Assembly’s control.

“If the LEOBR was repealed, there would be due process rights for law enforcement officers consistent with the civil service policies of each jurisdiction, so everyone would have their own policy based on the civil service policies that their jurisdiction has,” Davey told the workgroup at an August meeting. “It would not be a straight state policy, it would be whatever … is in place at that jurisdiction.”

While many delegates pushed for its repeal, others simply sought tweaks.

Del. Jason Buckel (D-Allegany) suggested that the law be renamed, because “the very fact that they called it a bill of rights is problematic to people.”

“I would urge us to not just go with the wholesale rejection of the concept, because I was taught in law school once that the law of unintended consequences is absolute and brutal,” Buckel said. “And so sometimes things happen and you do things for reason A without fully seeing the iceberg underneath that you’re going to hit.”

Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) — a leading advocate of police reform legislation — said that the workgroup needs to look into the complete repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which he called “fundamentally flawed.”

“Changing the name of a fundamentally flawed law doesn’t address the problems that exist within that law that provides procedural protections to law enforcement officers that you and I as ordinary citizens do not have,” he said. “So in essence, what we’re attempting to do is put lipstick on a pig and say we have resolved the issue, when, in actuality, what we should be doing is repealing a law that provides procedural protections, impedes accountability and does not allow communities to have oversight over their law enforcement agencies.”

Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore City) said that, should it be repealed, officers would have the same due process rights as other public employees under the Maryland State Personnel and Pensions Code, and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City) told the committee that transitioning from the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to that code would follow Supreme Court precedent.

Many members of the committee agreed that, in regards to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, some change needs to be made.

“Del. Acevero, we’re not gonna we’re not gonna put lipstick on this pig, OK?” Anderson said. “We’re just gonna get a different pig.”

‘The big elephant in the room’

Beyond the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, lawmakers offered several other recommendations, including requiring body-worn cameras on officers in each of Maryland’s 148 law enforcement agencies and regular mental health evaluations for officers.

House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) said she appreciated the idea of expanding mental health services for police, but had questions about how departments would fund them.

She suggested that the state provide more money to law enforcement agencies for both body cameras and mental health care, directly going against the cries of thousands of protesters who have called for defunding police departments.

“I would imagine if the state were willing to help fund that because we think it’s a priority and we want to make sure that law enforcement officers are, you know, getting a mental health checkup, that if we could help provide that funding, I think it would be great,” Szeliga said.

While the mental health of officers was on nearly every lawmakers’ list of priorities, Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) was concerned with the number of mental health calls officers respond to — largely ill-equipped.

He said that mental health and the use of excessive or deadly force tend to be “intertwined topics,” calling the former “the big elephant in the room.”

“Hopefully, we can get some consensus on agreeing that … armed police officers are not the best people to send to every circumstance,” Moon said. “Let’s figure out what those are and make a change.”

On Capitol Hill, a Maryland lawmaker is seeking that change.

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) plans to introduce The Community-Based Response Act which is aimed at reducing the number of mentally ill people killed by law enforcement.

Van Hollen said that, while just 3% of U.S. adults suffer from mental illness, the mentally ill make up almost one-half of all fatal police encounters.

“It’s very clear that we ask police to do too much in our communities,” Van Hollen said at a virtual news conference Thursday. “We ask them to respond to situations where the use of force is unnecessary and where they are ill-equipped to provide the appropriate response.”

Van Hollen’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), would create a grant program through the Department of Health and Human Services that would allow municipalities to create community-based emergency response programs to report to incidents where individuals are experiencing mental health episodes — effectively removing law enforcement from the equation.

“We need the right professionals with the right skills to provide the response,” he said. “This is necessary to ensure that we stop the criminalization of poverty; stop the criminalization of mental health; stop the criminalization of substance use disorders; and stop the tragic, unjust and unnecessary deaths we’ve seen in communities of color.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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