Democrats splintered ideologically Tuesday as the Senate began its debate on a bill seeking to make police officer misconduct records publicly accessible.
And while some believe that the transparency the bill is looking to provide goes too far, others argue that chiefs and sheriffs too often allow investigations to be swept under the rug, leaving civilians in the dark and problematic officers to continue to act inappropriately in the field.
“What I just heard was that we don’t trust the chief to make the decision; we don’t trust the review board to make the decision – even the civilian review board – that we still need to put up our officers who have had unsubstantiated complaints because we don’t trust the people that are judging them and that is a great deal of concern to me,” said Sen. Pamela G. Beidle (D-Anne Arundel).
Beidle introduced an amendment Tuesday afternoon seeking to remove unfounded and unsubstantiated complaints from the list of records that would be available for public inspection under the Maryland Public Information Act when there is no clear and convincing evidence that a transgression occurred.
The amendment, she said, was introduced on behalf of the Maryland Chiefs and Sheriffs Association. Beidle said that the senators received a letter stating the association wants these allegations struck from the bill because its release could “damage an officer’s career or reputation.”
Under current law, officers can have disciplinary files expunged from their records after three years if they were exonerated or acquitted, if the agency’s trial board determined that the allegations were unfounded, or if the actions were dismissed.
“You don’t expunge what goes out on the internet; you don’t expunge what goes on Facebook; you don’t expunge what you can Google about a person,” Beidle said. “And so once we’ve allowed unsustained complaints to go against an officer, it’s going to be with them for life, whether or not they’re expunged in three years.”
Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), the sponsor of the legislation, said she understands the desire to protect those who have been falsely accused.
“But, again – on balance, the chiefs and sheriffs that want this [amendment], it is the very chiefs and sheriffs that actually need to be held to this level of transparency and accountability, because it is the agencies that have failed, time and time again, to properly investigate and sustain complaints that need to be sustained.”
‘We have to make those decisions’
Senate Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) said he supports the police reform package as a whole, noting that there is legislation to ensure “fairness and due process for good officers.”
“Unfortunately, this bill, as it’s currently constructed doesn’t do that and the amendment would fix that,” he said.
Hough called the measure that would allow unfounded and unsustained complaints to remain in the public record its “fatal flaw,” referencing a message delivered to the public by Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) at the start of the floor session Tuesday morning.
Over the weekend, the Silver Spring Justice Coalition and the Montgomery County Defund/Invest Coalition organized a car rally that traveled between the districts of Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) and Vice Chairman Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery), showing up outside their homes. The protest was called to spotlight changes to the original legislation that activists said weakened the measure.
Ferguson made a point of addressing the protest caravan at the start of the session Tuesday morning, saying intimidation, particularly of members’ families, “is a red line.”
“All of us got into this work, we know that we’re going to get some tough criticism, we’re gonna get yelled at at times – that’s part of the job description,” Ferguson said. “But our families don’t sign up for that, and I just want to be very, very very clear that our words and actions are watched, but it is totally unacceptable for the use of family, or violating somebody’s privacy – family members’ privacy – in objective to accomplish some sort of legislative goal.”
Asked about the weekend protest, both Smith and Waldstreicher declined to comment.
Hough thanked Ferguson for condemning the behavior but asked how lawmakers shouldn’t expect the same behavior from advocates and protesters if the legislation is passed without Beidle’s amendment.
“Mr. President, quite frankly, that’s absurd,” he said. “If we allow false and unfounded allegations against our police in the hands of these people who right now are personally destroying members of this body – attacking their character, their fiber, showing up at their house – can you imagine what they’ll do to our police officers?”
Beidle said she feels the bill is “punishing all the police officers – even the officers that have done a good job in the departments, because of some bad actors” and the failures of a handful of police departments.
And, like several other lawmakers Tuesday, she raised the point that other bills in the package increase oversight of law enforcement agencies.
Beidle specifically pointed to a piece of legislation that intends to repeal and replace the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which would give police chiefs more authority to discipline officers.
She asked Smith if chiefs would still be able to track patterns of misconduct if these records weren’t publicly available.
“That’s absolutely correct, but what is also true is that we would have no idea that the chief was taking the appropriate action because you don’t know, you have no access,” he responded.
Carter clarified this point in her final push for her colleagues to reject Beidle’s amendment, referencing a recently unsealed expert report from a discrimination lawsuit waged against Prince George’s County by the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association.
The report details dozens of episodes of inadequately investigated discrimination and misconduct complaints filed against members of the Prince George’s County Police Department.
One incident detailed in the report stated that at least eight molestation complaints were filed by Black men against a single officer. None of these allegations were sustained, one was administratively closed because it wasn’t investigated within the appropriate amount of time, and the officer was never disciplined.
“These are the types of situations and it’s just a snippet,” said Carter. “It’s just a snippet of the mass number of public complaints that we never know about. We never know, and we never will know anything about the large body of complaints and large body of violations if we accept this amendment.”
Carter said she understood Beidle’s desire to empathize with the state’s chiefs and sheriffs.
“This is not about that, though,” she asserted. “We have to make them ensure that they are better. We can’t let them tell us how to govern it. We have to make those decisions.”
“Policing is a public function, and it is unlike any other profession because decisions that are made are often final,” Carter said with fire in her voice. “There is no appeal from death.”
Beidle’s amendment was narrowly defeated by a vote of 21-26.
After additional debate during a Tuesday evening floor session, lawmakers gave preliminary approval to the bill. Seven other bills that are part of a police reform package also received preliminary approval Tuesday, with little to no discussion.
By Hannah Gaskill
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include the vote from the evening floor session.