House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) appeared before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday to present a bill that seeks to introduce sweeping reform to Maryland’s police agencies.

“I am not someone who hates the police,” Jones asserted. “But over the years I’ve had my own experiences with law enforcement, as have my brothers and my two sons, and this has called into question the way that we as a state and as a society have empowered law enforcement officers [to] execute their duties.”

The omnibus bill is based on recommendations provided by the House Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland, which Jones convened following the police killing of George Floyd in late May.

“I am proud that the workgroup took the charge so seriously to put forward this balanced set of recommendations to provide greater transparency and more accountability of policing in Maryland,” she said.

The bill covers a lot of ground, including measures to:

  • Return control of the Baltimore City Police Department to the city;
  • Limit no-knock warrants;
  • Prohibit overnight search warrants unless there is an emergency;
  • Provide tuition assistance for criminal justice students at state colleges if they promise to serve as a police officer after graduation;
  • Restore a data collection and reporting process for all police SWAT team activity;
  • Create a statewide use of force statute;
  • Require early intervention systems to counsel officers who receive more than three complaints a year;
  • Designate an independent agency to investigate police incidents that result in serious injury or death;
  • Repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR);
  • Order every police agency to design and publish a transparent discipline process that involves administrative charging committees and trial boards; and
  • Create a study to determine what 9-1-1 calls can be diverted from law enforcement to other community resources.

Jones’ bill would also greatly increase the powers of the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission (MPTSC), which her workgroup declared was operating “without teeth” at one of its first meetings.

The commission would be changed to include citizen members, and new functions would include:

  • Holding law enforcement agencies accountable for complying with the new use of force statute;
  • Revoking certifications for officers who have violated the use of force statute, were convicted of certain crimes or were fired from or resigned from another agency while under investigation;
  • Tracking officers who have been decertified with a new database;
  • Creating an implicit bias test and training; and
  • Establishing yearly mental and physical health assessments.

“We need to make structural reforms to the way we police in Maryland ― not because we want to punish every individual police officer,” Jones explained, “but because we want to empower the public and community to take better control over this public investment and make their own decisions about the ways we keep neighborhoods safe.”

‘The feeling of pain outweighs the feeling of change’

Even law enforcement officials acknowledge that 2021 may be the year for major policing reform.

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Bowie Police Chief John Nesky stood behind the legislation with a few amendments.

Harrison worries that it may come into conflict with certain aspects of the city’s federal consent decree, like the mandate that they have a Special Investigation Response Team to investigate the use of force.

Nesky said that it’s clear that reform needs to happen but noted several issues with the bill, such as the requirement for all agencies to have body cameras.

Speaking on behalf of the Maryland Chiefs and Sheriffs Association, he said that he’s “all for” body cameras, but would hope there’s funding help to cover the high cost for smaller agencies.

“We are completely behind working towards more accountability and more transparency,” Nesky said. “We just want to make sure that we’re considering the operational angles and some unintended consequences.”

Also appearing in favor of the bill were Washington Football Team defensive end Chase Young, wide receiver Dontrelle Inman and long snapper Nick Sundberg.

Young, who majored in criminology at Ohio State University and has several family members in law enforcement, said that he is mindful of the way he carries himself around police.

“Even me growing up aspiring to be in law enforcement, I was still worried about the police that was in my community,” he said. “About how I moved around and, you know, how they might look at me if I do drive up to 7-Eleven in my nice Mercedes.”

Inman told the committee that while he was driving Tuesday morning he passed an officer at a routine traffic stop.

“About two, three miles later I passed a funeral and it dawned on me: I’m having a conversation today to speak about police reform,” he said. “I’m asking that you please just vote on this bill to change the narrative because change doesn’t come unless the feeling of pain outweighs the feeling of change.”

Toni Holness, a lawyer and police reform advocate, tweeted criticism about the athletes’ testimony, calling it an attempt to “out-hype” Jones’ constituents.

“It is a sad day for Maryland when our politicians recruit @washingtonNFL to out-hype and drown out every day constituents, who rightfully demand more than @SpeakerAJones’s police reform bill provides,” she wrote. “Desperate and undemocratic.”

Among the usual suspects ― state’s attorneys and representatives from the fraternal order of police ― testifying in opposition to Jones’ bill was the ACLU of Maryland.

“While we support the general intent and direction of HB 670 and applaud the speaker for opening the door to reimagining what police accountability might look like by repealing the LEOBR, the ACLU of Maryland and the coalition of more than 90 organizations we are working with … regrettably cannot support this bill as written,” said David Rocah, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.

Rocah’s organization and its coalition have opted, instead, to rally behind more aggressive single-issue bills, including legislation sponsored by Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) to make certain officer disciplinary records available for inspection under the Maryland Public Information Act and a bill sponsored by Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles) that would create a standard use of force statute.

Both of these bills were among several other pieces of police reform legislation heard at Tuesday’s hearing, including:

  • Another Jones-sponsored bill seeking to make certain officer misconduct records available to the public;
  • Two bills, one sponsored by Del. Brian M. Crosby (D-St. Mary’s) and another by Del. Julian Ivey (D-Prince George’s), that would require on-duty officers across state and local agencies to wear body cameras;
  • Legislation sponsored by Del. Robin L. Grammer (R-Baltimore County) to prohibit no-knock warrants;
  • bill sponsored by Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) that would require officers to identify themselves and notify individuals of their right to refuse to speak or provide information during a traffic stop; and
  • Legislation sponsored by Acevero to fully repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
By Hannah Gaskill

This story was updated and corrected to include Toni Holness’ correct affiliation.