A bill that would create criminal penalties carrying years of potential prison time for Maryland police officers who intentionally use excessive force, fail to intervene to stop colleagues or refuse to aid someone wounded by police passed a Maryland Senate committee with bipartisan support late Thursday night.
The proposal is among a slate of major policing legislation that leaders in the Maryland General Assembly have vowed to pass in some form this session.
The full package of policing legislation, which Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William C. Smith Jr. hailed as the “most comprehensive” slate of reforms attempted in Maryland in at least four decades, will reach the Senate floor beginning Friday.
Among the other legislation being considered is a mandate for all police officers in the state to wear body cameras, changes to the Maryland Public Information Act to allow access to some police disciplinary and internal affairs records, and a repeal of the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
A similar package of legislation sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, is likewise expected to begin moving through the House Judiciary Committee as early as next week.
In addition to the criminal penalties — up to 10 years in prison for officers whose excessive force results in death or serious injury as well as for fellow officers who stand without intervening — the bill would create statewide use-of-force standards, enact additional whistleblower protections for police officers who report misconduct within their agency, and allow the Maryland Police Standards and Training Commission to banish officers from the profession.
Several lawmakers initially opposed including potential prison sentences in the bill. Sen. Michael Jackson, a Prince George’s County Democrat and former sheriff, described himself at earlier hearings on the bill as totally against that idea.
But Jackson, along with three of the committee’s four Republicans, ended up supporting a slightly amended version of the bill, which was written by Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat. The bill advanced 9-2, with Sen. Jack Bailey, a Republican from Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, and Sen. Charles Sydnor III, a Democrat from Baltimore County, casting the votes against it.
“I think we’re not talking about how groundbreaking this is,” said Sen. Michael Hough, a Republican from Frederick and Carroll counties. Hough described the amended legislation as a hard-fought compromise that went “much further than I thought I’d be comfortable” with but would fundamentally change how egregious instances of police brutality are dealt with in Maryland.
Sydnor said he remained unsatisfied with how the bill would define excessive force in terms of what an “objectively reasonable police officer” might use in a situation. That, Sydnor said, struck him as allowing the police to continue deciding how much force was reasonable — and too similar to the standard courts have used for decades to evaluate charges of unjustified shootings or beatings.
Sydnor, who’s Black, said at another hearing Wednesday night that “what one officer thinks is reasonable against a Black person is different than what’s reasonable against a white person.”
In voting against the bill Thursday, Sydnor said, “I don’t know how this protects me.”
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