During the 2021 Maryland General Assembly, we have been advocating fiercely for the repeal of Maryland’s Law Enforcement Bill of Rights. It has taken the form of Senate Bill 627. While we initially supported this bill – it has been tremendously watered down by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Here’s a breakdown of what’s wrong with the bill as it stands.
The way that a problem is defined determines how the outcome is assessed. Only when power over law enforcement is shifted into the hands of the community can their be determined to be legitimate change.
What the Maryland Senate has produced does two marginally positive things:
What mitigates the utility of the two civilians on the hearing board is that there is no process spelled out regarding how the civilians are selected. This will allow the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and other forces partial to law enforcement to have political influence over how those civilians are selected. Additionally, the investigators must be trained by the Maryland Police Training Standards Commission which imposes some limits on what entities can investigate police misconduct.
These marginal changes are not sweeping changes. These are mild concessions. If this bill is supposed to represent Maryland’s response to the social unrest of 2020, then Maryland has once again proved that it is not a progressive state, particularly on racial justice issues. Maryland Democrats continue to be moderate on racial justice issues. Democrats who ask us to accept that can not be legitimately called champions of racial justice.
Community oversight: This is the biggest problem with the bill. The Judicial Proceedings Committee removed a section of the bill that would have allowed jurisdictions to create community oversight entities that can adjudicate and impose discipline. Proponents will argue that two civilians on a three person hearing board addresses this concern. There are two issues with that claim. First, the civilians are being plugged into a process where they had no hand in developing. While this can count as civilian participation in a process structured by law enforcement, that is different than civilian oversight. Additionally, the civilians only have a role when their is a trial board. This means that the civilians are only involved when an officer decides to not accept the discipline from the chief. An oversight body would allow for civilians to take up other roles in the disciplinary process that the community has a hand in determining.
Expungement: Police officers are sanctioned by the state to take people’s life and liberty at their discretion. There is substantial evidence that police have abused this power. Given the way that internal affairs has been complicit in protecting officers from true investigations into misconduct, officer’s records should not be eligible for expungement, especially after three years because this would inhibit the ability to observe patterns in the allegations that would help to identify deficiencies in the internal affairs investigations.
Prohibition on using misconduct allegations in administrative/judicial proceedings: SB 627 doesn’t allow the complaint file to be used in a judicial or administrative proceeding. While it would be unlikely for this file to be used in a judicial proceeding given the fact that prior bad acts are not generally admissible as evidence, to prohibit it provides an additional protection for police officers.
Disclosure of personal assets: One of the aspects of what made the Gun Trace Task Force so harmful is the fact that the officers involved were making money off of their criminal activity. Requiring officers to disclose their assets provides the department an ability to detect that kind of criminal activity before it can extends over many years
Without altering these fundamental problems with SB 627 – Maryland will not have meaningful police reform at the end of this year’s session – period.