On April 10, less than two weeks before the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, the Maryland legislature passed a series of police reform bills. The legislature overrode vetoes by Gov. Larry Hogan and passed bills that included a repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a statewide mandate to institute body-worn cameras and new limits on the use of no-knock warrants.
Following passage of these pieces of legislation, local Jewish political leaders, including members of the Maryland legislature and of the Baltimore City and County councils, spoke to the JT about George Floyd’s murder, Derek Chauvin’s trial and the wider issue of accountability in America’s policing system.
“The George Floyd death is what prompted the speaker to name a work group this past summer to reexamine the issues that we had looked at as a legislature in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray,” Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-41) said.
The pieces of legislation that passed include S.B. 71 – Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, S.B. 178 – Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 (Anton’s Law), H.B. 670 – Police Reform and Accountability Act of 2021 and S.B. 494 – Juvenile Restoration Act.
Rosenberg, Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-11) and state Sen. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-11) were among the state legislators who voted in favor of all four bills.
Rosenberg said that he reacted to Floyd’s murder with “dismay that this is how a suspect would be treated by a police officer anywhere in the United States.”
Asked why he supported the police reform bills, Rosenberg said that Maryland did not repeal the death penalty just to see people dying at the hands of state actors, even if not with the same intention, over traffic offenses or marijuana possession.
Cardin, meanwhile, sees serious questions about how police deal with members of minority communities.
Cardin, a member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, said he believes Maryland police do a better job in this area than police in many other states. “They could be a model organization,” he said.
“That being said, that doesn’t discount the fact that there are just issues of implicit … bias that have enveloped into our system of policing that need to be confronted regardless of where we’re talking about it,” Cardin said.
Cardin said he did not consider H.B. 670, which repealed the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, to be perfect and that there might need to be corrective legislation in the future to ensure that law enforcement officers are not being treated less than everyday citizens. That being said, he did not believe law enforcement should be immune from liability and felt it was necessary for there to be transparency in the system to create greater confidence in it.
Cardin helped draft some of these bills and said he listened to different voices in the Jewish community while doing so, including Rabbis Mitchell Wohlberg, Chai Posner and Eli Yoggev of Beth Tfiloh. One voice, though, rang out especially clearly for him. “The voice of my grandfather,” Cardin said, “who believed in both having a strong policing system, but also believed in making sure that we are treating people equally and fairly, creating confidence in systems.”
According to Hettleman, one of the problems with the Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights is that it doesn’t allow people who file complaints against officers to learn if those officers have been held accountable.
H.B. 670 “sets up an accountability system that involves the community and makes kind of a clear process for receiving complaints from the public about the actions of an officer,” said Hettleman, who belongs to Chizuk Amuno Congregation.
Though they did not vote on the bills, Baltimore City Councilmember Zeke Cohen and Baltimore County Councilmember Izzy Patoka agree that there needs to be some reform to policing.
Cohen argued that many of the problems police are charged with solving would be better handled by other types of professionals.
“Police have been put in a position where they are asked to solve problems that they weren’t really designed to solve,” he said. “We know that addiction is a mental health issue, so why are we treating it like criminality?”
One reform Cohen likes the idea of is tasking clinicians or individuals trained in substance abuse disorders with this responsibility, rather than police.
Another major issue Cohen sees is disproportionate enforcement of drug laws in minority communities.
“When I was at Goucher College, you know, everybody was smoking pot, or many people were, and some people were using cocaine and other drugs,” he said. “But there was almost no enforcement. There were almost no serious consequences. Yet, when I taught in Sandtown, young people would have their lives ruined if they were using drugs or even sometimes if they weren’t.”
Baltimore County Councilman Izzy Patoka said that elected leaders have a duty to act when confronted by scenes such as Floyd’s death.
“We that are elected to govern, we have a responsibility to make sure that all of our citizens are treated appropriate[ly] and respectfully, and certainly, I think that that wasn’t the case,” said Patoka, a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, on Floyd’s killing. “When you see what happened with Officer Chauvin, I think it’s clear to me that he wasn’t being a police officer at that time. He was being a criminal at that time. And what I saw was evil.”