The General Assembly is dealing with a whole raft of bills aimed at reforming Maryland’s policing system, most of which were proposed in response to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
Everyone from the Speaker of the House of Delegates to the founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream have been in the capital backing one idea or another.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones has offered a sweeping vision for the future of policing in the state, based on recommendations from a workgroup she created last summer. She has introduced an “omnibus” bill to implement changes ranging from requiring body cameras to repealing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, on the other hand, are traveling the country supporting bills to eliminate the practice of giving qualified immunity to law enforcement officers accused of misusing their powers.
While we support the general idea of police reform, since the need is real and urgent, we do have concerns about both the approaches of the speaker and the ice cream guys.
The Ben & Jerry’s founders, who are known for supporting progressive causes, came to Annapolis to back a bill introduced by Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery).
Her bill would allow people who are harmed by police to pursue civil lawsuits against officers for physical and emotional damages, which is not allowed under current state law.
Police officers accused of criminal conduct should be vigorously investigated and prosecuted if evidence supports it. But opening the door to personal lawsuits is very different.
Police officers are not doctors who are paying for malpractice insurance. They are agents of the government, and if they are accused of wrongdoing short of criminal conduct, the government is the proper target of a lawsuit. The government then should decide on punishment of individual officers for such wrongdoing.
Our main issue with the reform package proposed by Speaker Jones is that omnibus bills too often have several popular ideas packaged with more controversial ones, in an effort to give a coalition of lawmakers some reason to support the overall package.
Recommendations from Jones’s workgroup include such worthwhile items as:
- Creating a statewide police use-of-force statute;
- Mandating independent investigations of use-of-force incidents;
- Requiring mental health assessments of all police recruits before hiring and throughout their career;
- Creating an early-warning system to identify officers with problematic behavior;
- Creating a study to determine what emergency calls can be diverted from police agencies.
In general, we support rethinking the role of police in society, and recruiting the very best officers. We have many, many fine people who have devoted their careers to protecting society. We also have a few bad actors, and we need more tools to identify them and deal with them. Keep them off the force when possible and get rid of them promptly when necessary.
Diverting some emergency calls, especially those seeking help dealing with the mentally ill, away from police to specifically trained responders is another good move.
But the drawback to rolling everything into an omnibus bill is the inclusion of an important but divisive question like the police officers’ bill of rights. Reform advocates say current law keeps too many investigations shrouded in secrecy and grants protections to officers that are not available to others under investigation.
It is time to revisit the whole idea, to reconsider the pros and cons, and potentially to scrap it entirely. But including it in a larger bill risks dooming the entire package because police unions are likely to strongly oppose it.
The most important goal should be to rebuild the trust of the whole community in the police department. That is in the best interests of our many fine police officers, and it is also in the best interests of all citizens, especially minorities.
The actions of police across the country last summer, especially in the George Floyd case in Minneapolis, showed that the problems between police and minorities are real and very serious.
We hope that substantive reforms will be enacted during this session to begin the hard work of forging new, positive links between the police and the communities they serve. Particularly in the Black community, mistrust of the police is so widespread, destructive and corrosive.
The cries of pain and anger from last summer must continue to echo in the State House this session, reminding lawmakers about the need for real reform, right now.