Maryland Could Lead the Nation on Police Reform

Advocates for significant reform of police accountability measures in Maryland -- in the wake of notable instance of police misconduct -- packed a hearing in Annapolis as Assembly members fashioned a package for change.

/By Justin Vest/ For months Progressive Maryland members and allies have been working to raise awareness of the critical need for police reform in Maryland ahead of this year’s state legislative session. Starting as a door-knocking campaign by members of our Prince George’s chapter–Progressive Prince George’s–the movement to bring legislative authority to the public’s demand for police reform has led to the creation of a statewide coalition known as the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability and a showdown at the statehouse with Maryland’s institutions of policing.

 On February 23rd, Progressive Maryland and our coalition partners rallied in the Baltimore City delegation room in the House of Delegates to demand changes that will protect our communities and hold police accountable for misconduct. Progressive Maryland executive director Larry Stafford declared, “This is a start for changing the culture of law enforcement in Maryland and ending police brutality.” Hundreds of supporters including activists, faith communities, victims of police violence and families of those killed by police, as well as retired officers spent the day talking to their legislators, urging them to take action in the current session.

 The day’s events coalesced around the hearing for HB1016, an omnibus police reform bill put together following recommendations from the Public Safety and Policing Workgroup and supported by House leadership. While offering many improvements such as periodic psychological evaluations for officers, greater transparency of disciplinary processes, whistleblower protection, and de-escalation training there are elements of the bill that remain problematic. Victims of police harassment cited the need to allow for anonymous reporting of police abuse and attorneys argued against allowing officers up to 5 days following accusations of misconduct before being investigated both as a matter of fairness compared to the treatment of victims who are often interviewed immediately and due to the limited viability of testimony based on days-old memory.

 Members of the House of Delegates asked questions of many of the speakers and legal experts. Some conservative-leaning politicians attempted to damage the credibility of advocates’ demands by claiming anonymous complaints couldn’t be properly investigated or that new training protocols would place an undue burden on officers despite evidence to the contrary. However, most members of the committee seemed to understand, at least in part, the community’s concerns.

 Following 2 hours of–at times heart-wrenching–testimony from police reform advocates, attorneys representing the institutional interests of police opened their opposing testimony saying “there is no problem,” but merely a “perception of a problem” when it comes to issues of policing in the state. Delegate Carlo Sanchez, a Prince George's County Democrat and Progressive Maryland member responded, "There's a perception that there is a problem and your statement that 'there is no problem' exacerbates that."

 The proceedings drew high-profile names including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake who testified on a separate policing bill, actress Sonja Sohn of HBO’s The Wire who was shooting footage for a documentary centered around the death of Freddie Gray, and shockingly Officer William Porter whose trial in the death of Freddie Gray recently resulted in a hung jury.

 The Judiciary's Criminal Justice Subcommittee is expected to take on the task of hammering out the details of an amended bill. The Maryland Senate will hold a hearing on SB1026 – its version of the House bill– on March 1st. Please take a moment to show your support by signing Progressive Maryland's petition demanding police reform in 2016.

 Justin Vest is a staff organizer for Progressive Maryland and Progressive Prince George’s