Maryland legislature passed a package of comprehensive police reform bills that limit the police's ability to use force and increase accountability for their wrongdoing, including the abolition of the 1974 Bill of Rights passed by the state's powerful law enforcement agencies.
Maryland's Democratically controlled legislature passed the bills over the objections and vetoes of Maryland Republican Governor Larry Hogan, and the legislative package is welcomed by Democratic lawmakers and advocates of police reform as a significant step towards a more advanced criminal justice system in the state.
"Last year I took part in several demonstrations by people calling for change – young and old, people of all races and walks of life," said Maryland Senator Charles Sydnor, a Democrat who sponsored one of the activities, told the Baltimore Sun. "With so many situations before our eyes, we could no longer deny what we were seeing, and I thank my colleagues for believing their eyes and listening to the majority of Marylanders."
The new laws cover a wide range of guidelines and include restricting arrest warrants, imposing body cameras, prohibiting police officers from preventing civilians from taping them, and prohibiting life sentences without parole for juveniles.
As the New York Times reports, there are also new guidelines designed to raise the bar for the use of force by police:
One section creates a new statewide policy on the use of force, stating that officials who violate these standards and cause serious injury or death can be sentenced and imprisoned for up to 10 years. The standard states that violence can only be used to prevent "an imminent risk of bodily harm" to a person or "to achieve a legitimate law enforcement goal".
Politicians also say that violence must be "necessary and proportionate". Police reform groups said this was a stricter standard than the traditional "adequacy standard" and was insufficient to hold officers accountable for apparent acts of violence.
One of the bills repeals the 1974 police bill – the first of its kind in the country that helped pass similar laws in about 20 other states. It offered police officers protection in the workplace that went well beyond the protection of other government employees, including enabling them to contact a local authority without civilian contributions. The new law it replaces gives civilians a role in police disciplinary proceedings.
Hogan initially vetoed the laws, saying they had gone too far and "would further undermine police morale, community relations and public confidence".
The police unions also criticized the reforms as too drastic. "They'll make it harder for the police to become the police. There are reforms, and they go beyond reform," said Angelo Consoli, second vice president and chairman of the legislative committee of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, according to the New York Times.
But democratic lawmakers and supporters of police reform saw it as a long overdue step in the fight against excessive police violence.
"These new laws are a victory marked by the coordinated efforts of community members and lawyers who have campaigned for police accountability, transparency and justice," said a statement from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "This landmark legislative package required highly competitive advocacy and the removal of a number of barriers to police accountability has advocated a fair public security system after more than a decade of rallies."
Why is the abolition of fundamental police rights essential?
Criminal justice activists for decades have criticized the police bill of rights as serious obstacles to police accountability. As the Washington Post explains, when Maryland passed the very first in the 1970s, it seemed undisputed at the time, but powerful new precedents were set to protect the police from responsibility for wrongdoing:
[The legal requirements] included giving officers a formal waiting period before they had to cooperate on internal investigations into police behavior, cleaning up records of complaints filed against officers after a certain period of time, and ensuring that only other officers – no civilians – they could investigate.
Experts say Maryland's police bill of rights went further than other states in time officials have prior to investigation – five days in Maryland versus 48 hours in other states, the Post said.
This waiting time to investigate is inconsistent with U.S. Department of Justice guidelines, in part because officers may have more time to conspire and make up a story as they prepare to be asked about suspected wrongdoing.
Maryland's new law allows civil filings in the process and removes some of those protections. The New York Times states: “Civilians will play a role on management committees that review the results of law enforcement agencies and recommend discipline for officials. Police chiefs will not be able to take any disciplinary action less than the level recommended by these bodies. “And the latency and record cleanup guidelines are gone.
However, some activists do not believe that the new oversight policy, which replaces basic police rights, has gone far enough. Dayvon Love, the public policy director at Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore-based think tank, told the Post that the new laws were "net positive" but ultimately lacked a sufficiently substantive governance mechanism for the community.