By: Nate Rabner, Capital News Service
The Daily Record
ANNAPOLIS — Ahead of a House of Delegates committee hearing Thursday, about 70 people gathered by the State House to remember the names of people who died while interacting with law enforcement officers.
Archie Elliott III, 1995. Gary Hopkins Jr., 1999. Dale Graham, 2008. Tyrone West, 2013 — all men who died during interactions with officers in Maryland under disputed circumstances.
The men’s family members support bills under consideration that would impose stricter review processes and penalties for officers who abuse their power. But police officials say existing policies are sufficient, and changes would put officers at risk.
The 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, have sparked a nationwide discussion of police brutality and interactions with people of color, but the family members gathered on Lawyers’ Mall wanted to raise awareness of instances of alleged police misconduct in the state.
“This is not a new issue. This is an ongoing issue,” said Marion Gray-Hopkins, Gary Hopkins’ mother, standing with other parents near a banner with her son’s name that read: “I’m Gone But Let The Fight For Justice Continue.”
The protesters were gathered in support of a slate of bills intended to hold police accountable for alleged misconduct. Provisions on the table include amendments to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights; a stronger role for civilian review boards; harsher punishments for officers’ misbehavior; and the use of body cameras to record officer-citizen interactions.
“What we’re striving to do today is continue to put on that community pressure to the legislators,” said organizer Farajii Muhammad, of the Baltimore-based Young Leaders for Peace Coalition. He has been in Annapolis for a January rally and to support other police accountability bills.
Along with the “Police Accountability Now” badges Thursday were many buttons from immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland.
“We want transparency and accountability for police in the state,” said CASA de Maryland intern Alex Perry. “This does not just affect white people or black people or brown people; it is an issue for everybody.”
Delegate Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, sponsored eight law enforcement bills scheduled for a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday.
“We want to end extrajudicial killings, but more than that, we want to rethink how we think about law enforcement,” Carter said.
“At least 109 people died in police encounters in Maryland between 2010-2014,” according to an American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland report. Of those, 69 percent were black and 41 percent were unarmed. Two of the deaths yielded a criminal charge for an officer; the officer was off-duty in both cases, according to the report.
Four officers died in encounters with civilians during the same period, according to the report.
“Police should be held to a higher standard and have greater accountability,” Carter said.
One of Carter’s bills, HB968, would allow civilian membership on hearing boards that review alleged police misconduct and would allow a hearing board to approve or overturn a disciplinary decision. It would also eliminate a clause that gives an accused officer 10 days before he or she can be interrogated; critics of that policy say it allows officers to create alibis and firm up their cases.
After the rally, protesters squeezed into a committee room already mostly filled with law enforcement officials, who had arrived early to defend their policies. Officials said the bills could strip officers of crucial protections.
“We have some really great concerns over” some of the proposals, said Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin, D, a member of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association and the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association. “We want to make sure that not only the officers and deputy sheriffs in Maryland continue to have their due process in case some of them get in trouble. But we want to also make sure that the chiefs and sheriffs have their authority to make very good decisions as far as discipline goes.”
The Maryland Troopers Association and the Fraternal Order of Police’s Maryland-National Capital Park Police Lodge offered written statements against amending the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which has been in effect for 40 years.
“Law enforcement would be the only government employees in the state not to have any sort of protection from the false accusations and the unjust termination,” Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 30 President Michael Young said in the Fraternal Order of Police statement. “The (Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights) works; its intent is to protect the wrongly accused; the good officer, not the bad officer, and when administered properly this is exactly what the law does.”
Popkin said police were not notified about the bills and didn’t have the opportunity to weigh in during the drafting process, resulting in an ineffective, “piecemeal” approach. He said law enforcement officials already handle alleged misconduct appropriately.
“The sheriffs and chiefs in the state of Maryland do everything they possibly can based on facts and based on actual investigative information, make their decisions based on what they have in front of them,” Popkin said, “and I would believe in most cases that the appropriate punishments and discipline, if necessary, are handed out.”
On the topic of body cameras, Popkin said the chiefs and sheriffs favor their use, but the bills before the committee are too restrictive as to when cameras can be used. Other officials, however, cited privacy concerns, speaking about the “voyeuristic” nature of cameras and the potential for embarrassing videos to surface on YouTube.
Also present was Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, D, who spoke about two bills that Delegate Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore, introduced on her administration’s behalf.
One of Anderson’s bills, HB363, would create a felony charge of misconduct in office, which would apply to officers who commit any crime that draws a maximum penalty of more than one year in prison. The new felony would carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. The other, HB365, would order the state attorney general to prosecute all cases of felonies allegedly committed in the line of duty.
Rawlings-Blake mentioned Brown and Garner, but said she proposed the bills “as a result of not just the national conversation, but also my experiences in listening to citizens from around the city.” She blamed “bad apples in law enforcement” for souring relations with the community.
Of the 109 deaths from encounters with police in Maryland from 2010 to 2014, 31 took place in Baltimore, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland report.
“A relationship of trust is essential to protecting not just the citizens … that law enforcement have taken an oath to serve, but also for the safety of the officers themselves,” Rawlings-Blake said.
The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and Maryland Sheriffs’ Association issued a joint memorandum opposing HB363, accusing it of supporting an unfair “second punishment” for misdeeds that no other profession faces.
“We are unaware of any other profession in the State where they would be exposed to a second crime if a crime is committed as part of their official duties,” the associations said in the memorandum.