ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s House of Delegates passed a sweeping package of policing legislation late last Thursday, a widely-anticipated move fueled by renewed scrutiny of racism and brutality in policing following the recent high-profile deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black Americans at the hands of police.
The bill, titled the Police Reform and Accountability Act of 2021, would enforce new standards of police training, conduct and discipline. Sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, the bill passed 96-40, an almost entirely partisan vote with a veto-proof majority of support from the chamber’s Democratic members.
Maryland’s more progressive delegates have lauded the package as a major policy victory which, if enacted into law, would be a historic change in the state’s approach to policing. Across the aisle, though, Republican lawmakers, including those who represent eastern Baltimore County, condemned the legislation as hostile toward members of law enforcement.
District 7 Delegate Lauren Arikan, a member of the Public Safety Subcommittee where the bill originated, acknowledged finding some common ground with her colleagues of both parties while debating the package. She pointed to bolstered training and protections for whistleblowers as points where members agreed.
However, those points of agreement were few and far between.
“There was so many things that we couldn’t agree on — that we couldn’t even come close to making ends meet on,” Arikan said from the house floor just before the vote formally closed. “I’m sad that I can’t support the bill in its current form, but I do want to thank everybody for the attempts to work together.”
She fears that local police forces will lose officers, and said a friend and officer in the Baltimore County Police Department plans to quit if the legislation goes through.
“She’s given her life, to try and protect people who couldn’t care less every day when she goes out there,” Arikan said. “And she’s done.”
Among its many measures, the bill would restrict ‘no knock’ warrants, require widespread use of body cameras, increase civilian participation in oversight boards, unify standards for tracking complaints against officers and repeal long standing job protections for police.
Also speaking from the house floor in the final moments of debate, District 6 Delegate Robin Grammer, Jr. said the bill would put police across the state in an “impossible position.”
“The most dangerous part of this movement is that the due process rights of our law enforcement officers are being reduced,” Grammer said. “We are subjecting them to someone else’s politics.”
Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat who chaired a workgroup on police reforms that helped shape the legislation, described the measure as “a huge leap forward in terms of police reform for the state of Maryland.”
“This legislation isn’t anti-police,” Atterbeary said. “In fact, the police were involved in every aspect of negotiations along with the advocates in this legislation. This legislation is about moving towards a Maryland where all citizens, all citizens, receive the same treatment by the police.”
The bill builds on a package of legislation developed in the state senate, which, among many provisions, outlined measures restricting the use of no-knock warrants or nighttime raids and requiring body cameras to be worn by all Maryland officers by 2025.
That said, the House bill would go further, replacing the 1974 Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights with a statewide disciplinary structure, creating an independent agency to investigate police shootings and unifying a system of penalties for bad behavior which would follow officers moving between agencies.
In a recent episode of Chesapeake Connect, a podcast from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council hosted by WYPR’s Tom Hall, Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt said the department is pursuing high standards of diversity training and bolstering public trust through transparency.
“We must be constantly evolving and constantly moving forward,” Hyatt said.
Community engagement, she explained, is a critical way to bolster recruitment and retention of officers — relationships with members of the communities they serve can help officers feel more supported on the job. A person’s first interaction with law enforcement, Hyatt added, should not come amid a heated encounter, or after calling 911 for an unforeseen tragedy.
“We’re trying to build those relationships in advance,” she said. “We can’t just police our way out of every issue that we have — we have to work together with the community.”
On the same podcast episode, Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski, Jr. said that he was proud of recent progress in the county police. Under Olszewski’s administration, the force has moved toward many of the standards outlined in last week’s house bill.
He pointed to Hyatt’s attention on community policing, establishing an Equitable Policing Task Force and hosting town halls to hear feedback from community members, as well as implementing county-wide body camera regulations, trainings in implicit bias and de-escalation and a ban on chokeholds. The county also plans to implement more rigid hiring practices for police, turning away applicants with concerning disciplinary records.
For Olszewski, the recent conversation around policing begs a larger question about how to define public safety.
“In my estimation, it’s about the upstream investments that sustain and grow our communities and prevent crime in the first place,” he said. “These are all building blocks towards trust, and they’re all very important, and we’re going to keep building.”
Hyatt cut through the polarized conversation to identify shared values.
“Everybody wants to live in a safe community,” she said. “And for our police officers — they want to work with other police officers that are doing a good job.”
In a press conference on Thursday, Maryland Fraternal Order of Police President Clyde Boatwright said that he and the thousands of officers represented in his organization support police reforms where necessary.
That said, he argued that the legislation working through the house would hurt those officers.
“The legislation being considered will make it harder for officers to do the job,” Boatwright said. “It will make it more difficult to recruit and train good officers and, ultimately, it will make our communities less safe.”
At the same press conference, District 7 Delegate and House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga said that the Republic caucus is ‘more than willing’ to pass ‘common sense measures’ to improve policing in the state.
However, she said that the debate about police reform has become ‘largely devoid of facts and reason.’
“If you listen to the house members pushing the package of bills before us, you would assume that police officers are the ones actually committing the majority of crimes in our state, and that the police are the ones responsible for murders here in Maryland,” she said. “That is not true.”
Szeliga said she wanted to see more bipartisan legislation. Six of nine police reform bills which were considered in the state senate passed unanimously, drawing sharp contrast with the split in the house.
Delegate Arikan, speaking at the press conference, took particular issue with the bill’s transparency measures, saying it would eliminate due process and open officers up to public scrutiny on unsubstantiated complaints.
“Exposing officers to public attacks and ridicule in the public court is not what we’re looking for,” she said. “We don’t want to just criticize and humiliate our officers when it turns out that they’re innocent in the end.”
In a statement to The Eagle, Grammer panned the bill as a politicization of police. Weakening protections for officers, he argued, also weakens their insulation from political pressure.
“As we continue to see more laws like this one, we will continue to see problems in recruitment,” he predicted. “This means less quality law enforcement and less safe communities.”
Grammer closed by condemning his colleagues across the aisle: “The Democrats have lost their minds.”
For now, though, it’s the Democrats who have the votes, girding their goals for police reform against even the most powerful Republican opposition.