By Ben Terzi
Special to The Baltimore Watchdog
Maryland’s General Assembly rushed to a close on Monday with many legislators satisfied that an influential police reform package passed through over the weekend.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan earlier vetoed three crucial police reform measures in The Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, stressing in his veto message that the legislation would “erode police morale, community relationships, and public confidence.”
However, Democrats quickly overruled Hogan’s objections Saturday afternoon and ultimately passed the landmark bill that enforces a stricter discipline process for police misconduct, gives the public access to complaints and internal police files and limits “no-knock” warrants. With the legislation, Maryland becomes the first state to repeal its own Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
“Now, for the first time in our nation’s history, the rights of officers will not be held above the rights of individuals, and policing in Maryland will be transparent and citizen-centered,” House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat, said.
The legislation demands officers only use necessary force proportional to reported crimes and sets a legal precedent where officers who use excessive force will face criminal charges, potentially facing up to 10 years in prison.
Democratic Party Chair Yvette Lewis declared the legislative session a success.
“In the closing weeks of the session, Democrats delivered on a key promise – comprehensive police reform,” Lewis said. Thanks to the action of Democrats, Marylanders will be safer, and we can begin to restore trust between law enforcement and our communities.
“Despite Governor Hogan’s vetoes of these critically important policing bills, the General Assembly overrode his vetoes within two days, once more delivering results for Marylanders,” she said.
The Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability, made up of 60 advocate organizations, cited the passing of Anton’s Law disclosing police misconduct records and investigations to the Maryland public will be “transformative.” The law is named after 19-year-old Anton Black who died of sudden cardiac arrest after an altercation with police in Greensboro, Caroline County in 2018.
“Anton’s Law will allow communities to know whether their police departments are appropriately handling complaints of police abuse and punishing misconduct,” the coalition said in a statement.
An aspect of the new law that remains heavily disputed is the new use of force statutes. According to the legislation, an officer can only use force that is “necessary” and “proportionate” to prevent an imminent threat of injury. The legislation also allows an officer to use force only after “exhausting reasonable alternatives.”
“We will have to stay vigilant to evaluate how the courts will interpret this standard to see whether more restrictions will need to be implemented to protect Maryland residents,” said coalition member Jossette Blocker.
“My nephew is paralyzed because of the use of force of a Prince George’s County police officer—that is why having a strong use of force bill to fully protect the people of Maryland matters so much,” Blocker explained.
Although activist groups like the coalition acknowledged initial progress has been made, some stressed that more must be accomplished for real change. For example, officials complained that some aspects of the police reform package miss the mark in creating transformative change, especially in allowing community oversight for police accountability.
The legislation would require local jurisdictions to create administrative charging committees and trial boards to decide how an officer should be disciplined based on the reported complaint. Charging committees and trial boards would both be composed of civilians and police officers, working together to provide more transparency, officials explained.
However, coalition members said community boards should completely be made up of civilians and separate from police departments, while maintaining more power to charge officers.
“Community oversight means there is a community-controlled and operated entity that is external to the police department that has power to investigate and impose discipline,” the coalition said. “While [the bill] has aspects of civilian participation in the disciplinary process, this is not the same as community oversight.”