Brushing aside vetoes from Gov. Larry Hogan, Maryland legislators on Saturday passed a landmark police reform package into law that supporters hailed as a major step toward transforming policing in the state.
Hogan, a Republican, contended that central provisions of the sweeping four-part Maryland Police Accountability Act go too far and will treat police officers unfairly. He vetoed three bills Friday evening containing those sections.
But Democrats swiftly overruled his objections. By Saturday afternoon, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly had voted to override the vetoes. The first provisions of the Maryland Police Accountability Act will take effect later this year.
The legislation will overhaul the disciplinary process for officers accused of misconduct, allow public scrutiny of complaints and internal affairs files, and create a new legal standard requiring that police use only “necessary” and “proportional” force. Officers who use excessive force will face additional criminal penalties, including up to 10 years in prison. Also, police will be limited on when they can obtain so-called “no-knock” warrants or raid homes at night.
Supporters described the legislation as the most far-reaching police reform in the state’s history, an advance that will begin to restore frayed community trust in law enforcement.
Democratic leaders in Annapolis declared that changing how law enforcement is carried out in Maryland would be a priority following nationwide protests last summer over police brutality and after decades of demands from activists here.
“Last year, I attended and participated in multiple demonstrations of people demanding change — the young and the old, people of all races and walks of life,” said Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored one of the bills. “With so many situations being thrust before our eyes, we could no longer deny what we see, and I thank my colleagues for believing their eyes and listening to the majority of Marylanders.”
House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, sponsored key portions of the package.
“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,” she said.
Hogan said Friday in his veto message that the police reform effort was “overtaken by political agendas that do not serve the public safety interests of the citizens of Maryland” and that the bills he vetoed would “further erode police morale, community relationships and public confidence.”
Republican lawmakers echoed those concerns and raised worries that provisions would leave officers fearful that split-second decisions under dangerous circumstances might cost them their jobs or send them to prison. Maryland Fraternal Order of Police President Clyde Boatwright warned that the legislation would have “a significant impact on the hiring and retention of law enforcement officers in our state.”
Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who fought for years to pass policing legislation, responded Saturday on the Senate floor to Hogan’s comments. What corrodes community trust in police, Carter said, is years of frustration over abuses that go unpunished, protests that go unheard and a broken system that carries on unchanged.
Carter cited scores of people killed by law enforcement in Maryland over the past two decades and notorious instances of corruption that went unchecked for years. Baltimore residents filed numerous complaints about since-convicted officers on the Baltimore Police Department’s infamous Gun Trace Task Force, Carter said, but members of the force continued to abuse the public with impunity.
“It’s a critically important step in the right direction,” Carter said of the legislation.
Lawmakers approved some policing changes the year after Freddie Gray died in Baltimore Police Department custody in 2015, but critics said they were not enough.
Under one of the bills passed Saturday over Hogan’s veto, complaints against officers — even those rejected by internal affairs investigators as baseless — will become public records and subject to potential release. Supporters like Carter have argued that’s essential to pulling back a veil of secrecy over police discipline and making sure agencies hold officers accountable for misconduct.
Critics, including police unions and many Republican lawmakers, feared the transparency measure will end up smearing the reputations of officers by airing baseless complaints. Sen. Robert Cassilly, a Harford County Republican, accused Democrats of “anti-police animus” in passing the legislation.
That bill is named for Anton Black, a young man who died in police custody in Caroline County in 2018. Black’s family struggled to obtain information about the officer involved in his death, who had a record of complaints in Delaware before being hired in Maryland.
“If we do not have transparency, there can be no accountability, there can be no justice, there can be no community trust,” said Del. Gabriel Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the measure with Carter for three years before seeing it passed into law.
Acevero noted that Hogan had called for transparency and a full investigation into Black’s death and said it was shameful that the governor vetoed the bill. Acevero read the names of more than a dozen people who died at the hands of police in Maryland, his voice booming through the House chamber as he appeared via video from an annex that houses half of the delegates due to measures meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“This bill says Black lives matter. This bill says that Anton Black’s life matters, and that we can and should do better in this state,” Acevero said.
Among other far-reaching provisions passed over Hogan’s veto is the repeal of Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a 1974 law that guarantees job protections and due process rights for officers accused of wrongdoing that critics have long alleged shields officers from accountability and has been among the biggest impediments to reform. Maryland was the first state in the nation to pass such a law, which dozens of others have copied, and now is the first state to repeal it.
Complaints, infractions and allegations of wrongdoing against officers will be handled by a new disciplinary system controlled largely by civilian committees that will weigh evidence against officers and recommend discipline.
Del. David Moon noted that people keep dying at the hands of police, noting a case in Takoma Park where an off-duty federal officer is charged with killing two people Wednesday whom he suspected of breaking into a car.
“You cannot tell me that we don’t need this legislation. Literally, as we were debating this, this happened,” said Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat. “It’s unacceptable, this culture of violence, this taking life for granted.”
Moon said going forward, police will need to be trained to use force only when “necessary and proportional” as the law dictates.
“It’s a reboot, it’s a refresh, it’s a re-imagining of policing,” Moon said.
Del. C.T. Wilson said he often worries that he could be in danger when he deals with police, due to his size and skin color.
“With great power comes great responsibility,” said Wilson, a Southern Maryland Democrat who is Black. “What we want to make sure is that everyone who wields a gun and a badge is keeping us safe — and not jumping to conclusions.”
Del. Matt Morgan, a Southern Maryland Republican, countered that perhaps he should read the names of the hundreds of people murdered in Baltimore each year. He said the legislation “does not make our citizens more safe.”
The General Assembly overrode two other vetoes from Hogan on Saturday.
Lawmakers voted over his objection to abolish life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted in state court. The Juvenile Restoration Act also allows people convicted as children in adult court to seek reductions in their sentences after serving 20 years in prison and waives mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles convicted in adult courts. It will become law after a supermajority in both chambers backed the bipartisan legislation.
Hogan and other opponents said that hearings to weigh release of longtime prisoners would inflict pain on victims. Some crimes, critics of the bill argued, are simply so heinous that the perpetrator — even if just a teenager — should never walk out of prison.
Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican who sponsored the legislation with Democratic Del. Jazz Lewis of Prince George’s County, said no criminal would be automatically released under the legislation. “This is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” he said. He argued that condemning teenagers to die in prison amounted to an injustice.
“People can change, redemption is possible. When that happens, as a society, we should rejoice,” West said. “Keeping someone in prison who committed a youthful crime and has spent decades behind bars but has transformed his life and is no longer a threat to society is hard to defend. We should be willing to give such a person a second chance.”
The governor also attempted to block legislation that expands when contractors are required to pay prevailing wages on government-funded construction work. Lawmakers in both chambers likewise voted to override that veto.
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