Law enforcement accountability has been at the forefront of the national conversation for months, sparked by the August killing of an unarmed black teenager by police in Ferguson, Mo. In Maryland, state legislators and advocates are pushing for reforms to increase police accountability.
On Thursday, March 12 in the House Judiciary Committee, advocates from Jews United for Justice testified in favor of a bill that would alter the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR), which would change the process for filing a complaint against an officer and how police misconduct investigations are handled.
The bill, HB 968, would prohibit sharing information about an investigation of an officer with that officer until after questioning, whereas LEOBR currently requires the officer to be notified about the nature of the investigation before questioning. It eliminates restrictions on who can conduct an investigation, interrogation or hearing, allows for civilian review boards and extends the time a person has to file an excessive force complaint from 90 days to one year. The bill would also eliminate the current LEOBR provision that states officers may not be questioned by their superiors for 10 days following an incident.
The hearing, which was part of a committee session that reviewed 17 different bills, was packed with advocates from the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Equality, which includes Casa de Maryland, the ACLU, Jews United for Justice and several other organizations as well as law enforcement officers from around the state.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue, who was there on behalf of Jews United for Justice, said prior to the hearing that being a rabbi at a synagogue in a largely African-American neighborhood gives him a unique perspective on police-community relations.
“I talk to residents in my community and there’s a lot of mistrust of the police, some of it warranted, some of it not,” he said. “So I think it’s important to address some of those issues of trust and accountability.”
Although the hearing started at 1 p.m., HB 968 wasn’t heard until 8:30 p.m. Molly Amster, JUFJ’s Baltimore executive director, read Burg’s testimony since he had a prior commitment that evening.
Amster said the Jewish community’s connection to this issue is not only rooted in Talmudic law and religious norms, but can be found in recent history.
“I think the Jewish community came to the United States for refuge, and many of our families came precisely because they feared the authorities who were supposed to protect them,” she said. “How could we be good Jews if we didn’t stand with the black community that is being similarly affected by policing today?”
[pullquote]“This is just one aspect of a larger comprehensive approach to improving police and civilian relationships, and some of that has to come with hiring and supervision and training of police officers.”[/pullquote]
The Rev. Heber Brown III, pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, testified with Amster at the hearing. He altered his prepared testimony after someone who spoke against the bill prior to him said changing LEOBR is unprecedented.
“I spoke to how we’re living in an unprecedented time in this country, and unprecedented times call for measures that would not be needed for normal times,” he said.
There were objections to the bill, several of which came from law enforcement representatives.
Darrell Carrington, a lobbyist representing Baltimore-based AFSCME Council 67, which represents Hagerstown police officers and Maryland Transit Authority police officers, called the bill unnecessary and said it takes due process away from officers.
“The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights has been in existence since 1974 and it’s been a very, very useful tool, and it does not stop police officers from being prosecuted for wrongdoing,” Carrington said. “It just makes sure it establishes rules for those officers so we don’t go back to the wild West situation we had before.”
But Amster points to a recently released ACLU report to show why her organization and others believe the current system isn’t working. The report, released this month, found that at least 109 people died in police encounters in Maryland between 2010 and 2014. Sixty-nine percent of those deaths were African-American, and 41 percent were killed while unarmed. Of those, 36 people — 88 percent of the unarmed cohort — were black. Police officers were criminally charged in less than 2 percent of the cases.
“This is just one aspect of a larger comprehensive approach to improving police and civilian relationships, and some of that has to come with hiring and supervision and training of police officers,” Burg said of the proposed legislation. “It’s really important.”
Other bills heard include HB 627, the main sponsor of which is Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg (D-District 41). It lays out requirements for police officers and agencies with respect to wearing body cameras while on duty, though the bill does not mandate the use of them. Another bill would authorize their use.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake testified on behalf of HB 363, a bill she and Del. Curt Anderson (D-District 43) developed that would stiffen penalties for officers who commit crimes while on duty.
“I think the conversation that all of these bills are generating is important, because it’s very clear to me that communities all over Maryland and all over the country are desperate for increased accountability of officers and better relationships between the police department and the community,” Rawlings-Blake said in an interview after testifying. “My goal … is doing what we can in a responsible way and in a judicious way to level the playing field, to give our chiefs and commissioners more tools to deal with bad cops and work to improve and repair the relationship, the trust between the police and the community.”