Maryland lawmakers approve package of police reform measures

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) – A comprehensive package of police reform measures cleared the Maryland General Assembly on Wednesday, including repeal of police job protections long cited as a barricade to accountability.

Lawmakers approved a new statewide use-of-force policy, limits on no-knock warrants and an expansion of public access to records in police disciplinary cases.

Police would be required to use body cameras statewide by 2026. One measure would create a unit in the attorney general’s office to investigate police-involved deaths and prohibit law enforcement from buying surplus military equipment.

The legislation, which now goes to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, has been months in the making and a top priority of the General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats. A spokesman for Hogan said he would review the legislation.

Lawmakers voted to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which critics have decried for standing as a barrier to officer discipline. Maryland was the first state to enact such a law in 1974, and about 20 states have adopted similar laws setting due process procedure for investigating police misconduct.

Lawmakers have been working for months on the reforms after George Floyd’s death in police custody in May, which prompted nationwide protests. Supporters emphasized that while police brutality has received intense nationwide focus recently, the problem has long been with the country.

“We cannot continue to do things the same way and expect different outcomes,” said Sen. Melony Griffith, a Prince George’s County Democrat. “We had to respond to this crisis with change.”

Maryland has struggled with police accountability problems in recent years. Baltimore’s police department entered into a federal consent decree after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray following an injury while in police custody, which caused unrest in the city. Lawmakers approved some police reforms the following year, but critics have said they were not enough.

One of the bills approved Wednesday to expand public access to police personnel disciplinary records now shielded under the state’s public information act is named after Anton Black, a 19-year-old who died in police custody in 2018 in a rural town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Senators who voted against the measures, many of whom had supported legislation earlier in the session for some of the reforms, said changes made in the House of Delegates and hastily agreed to by the Senate went too far. They also said the changes will erode law enforcement by hurting recruitment and retention of police.

“We will be back here again examining this problem and working with it,” said Sen. Jack Bailey, a Republican and retired police officer who represents St. Mary’s and Calvert counties. “We should not be passing a bill just to pass a bill.”

Under the statewide use-of-force provision, an officer would not be able to use force unless it is “necessary and proportional” to “prevent an imminent threat of physical injury to a person” or “effectuate a legitimate law enforcement objective.”

A police officer convicted of causing serious injury or death through excessive force would face 10 years in prison, under the legislation. Opponents were especially critical of that provision, as well as the use-of-force provision, which they said was poorly crafted.

“We’re defending standards that are not defined in Maryland law, and so when you take a cop and make him a criminal based on undefined standards like this, to think it’s not going to affect policing is ludicrous,” said Sen. Michael Hough, a Republican who represents parts of Frederick and Carroll counties.

Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who has long advocated for police reform, said Baltimore, while under the federal consent decree, has adopted a policy for objective reasonableness, necessity and proportionality when it comes to use of force.

“I support the police, and I want the police to be better, and this is going to make the police better, and what that’s going to do for Maryland, it’s going to make Maryland better, because only when we restore trust and integrity are we going to then be able to have a safer state,” Carter said.

A provision also creates a duty-to-intervene that requires an officer to make a reasonable effort to prevent use of excessive force.

Legislation also would restrict when no-knock warrants could be used. Under the bill, police could only use no-knock warrants between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., except in an emergency.

Another measure sent to the governor would enable Baltimore voters to decide whether the state’s largest city should take full control of the police department from the state.

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