Baltimore County Can’t Wait for State on Police Reform

By Elizabeth Brown.

This morning, August 28, 2020, Councilman Julian E. Jones, Jr. held a press conference to announce the introduction of seven distinct bills covering important aspects of police reform. After the Baltimore County Council unceremoniously tabled Jones’s earlier police reform bill, Bill 73-20, at the August 3, 2020 session, I was glad to hear that Councilman Julian E. Jones, Jr. would try again with new legislation.

When police act out of fear, both the police and residents are endangered. Proper training in de-escalation techniques would provide police officers the tools and the confidence not to act out of fear. Another no-brainer is whistleblower protection for officers who intervene or report misconduct – clearly a benefit to police officers that protects the public at large.

As Peta Richkus points out, we need to codify these and other common sense reforms into law so that they are not “subject to changes in administration.” And, as we delve more into the topic of police reform at the state level, it becomes obvious that the County can’t wait for the General Assembly to act.

Not everyone may realize to what extent the laws in Maryland put police in a protected class. Forward Baltimore is pleased to follow up on Richkus’s piece with a series of posts examining the need for reform from different viewpoints. At the August 8th Town Hall hosted by Delegate Julian Ivey, the testimony of Yanet Amanuel of the ACLU of Maryland outlined a complete lack of transparency centered largely around two key acronyms: MPIA and LEOBR.

The Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) is the Maryland version of the Freedom of Information Act, which states what documents the government must share, may share, or may not share with the public.

Police disciplinary records are confidential personnel records under Section 4-311 of the MPIA Maryland’s Public Information Act. A damaging decision in a 2014 court case, Maryland Department of State Police v. Dashiell, affirmed that such records are exempt from disclosure, even when the requester seeks records about the investigation of his or her own complaint.

Currently in Maryland, no member of the public can find out how police departments investigate misconduct. Even if you are a victim of misconduct, all you can find out is the outcome of your complaint and the discipline, if any. You cannot find out whether the department conducted a thorough or lackluster investigation of your complaint (or any investigation at all).

Thus, the ACLU of Maryland is demanding that that the MPIA be changed to allow all investigations into police misconduct to be disclosed. Amanuel said: “Survivors of police misconduct, their advocates, and communities deserve to know how their complaints are handled. And until records are public, the kind of misconduct that leads to killings and wrongful convictions can’t be reined in. Transparency is a prerequisite for accountability and community trust.”

Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights (LEOBR) was the first such law in the country, enacted in 1972. LEOBR creates special rights for Maryland police officers facing discipline for misconduct, including:

  • Generous protections during the investigation of misconduct
  • Limits on what discipline can be imposed for certain infractions
  • Expungement of disciplinary records.

Maryland is in the minority—only a few other states have a LEOBR, and Maryland’s LEOBR is among the most extreme in the country; only Rhode Island’s LEOBR is considered more extreme than Maryland’s.

Examples of obstructive LEOBR provisions include:

  • Only sworn law enforcement officers may investigate misconduct that leads to discipline, and investigations conducted by civilians cannot result in discipline.
  • Time limits on complaints (e.g. a complaint alleging brutality must be filed within 366 days after the alleged brutality).
  • Some disciplinary records may be expunged.
  • Anonymous complaints are not permitted (only third-party complaints).

LEOBR prevents the Civilian Review Board (CRB) from conducting an investigation that leads to discipline. This means the CRB has to rely on the often compromised investigation of the police department, which renders the CRB virtually toothless to hold police officers accountable.

Some limited reforms of LEOBR were enacted in 2016:

    • Complaints no longer need to be notarized (must be signed under penalty of perjury).
    • The 10 day waiting period before officers could be questioned about misconduct was reduced to 5 days.
    • With regard to any civilian oversight:
      • A Chief may appoint, as a non-voting member, one member of the public who has received training by the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commission (MPTSC) on LEOBR and matters relating to police procedures.
      • If authorized by local law or collectively bargained, the hearing board may include up to two non-voting or voting members of the public who have received training by MPTSC on LEOBR and matters relating to police procedures.
      • Trial boards to be open, unless Chief finds “good cause”
    • Time limit for reporting brutality complaints was increased from 90 days to the 366 days.

Forward Baltimore is grateful to Yanet Amanuel and the ACLU of Maryland for letting us share her talking points from the August 8th Town Hall. We believe this post and ensuing series will bring into even sharper focus how Maryland state law lacks transparency and accountability.

In the meantime, congratulations to Councilman Jones for working so hard with stakeholders to arrive at new legislation in under a month.

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