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Maryland Enacts Sweeping Reforms to Make Police More Accountable

April 13, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Maryland’s General Assembly on Saturday enacted the nation’s most sweeping police reform legislation to make officers more accountable to the public.

The new rules place more restrictions on use of force and no-knock warrants. Other provisions require body cameras and give civilians a bigger voice in deciding discipline for officers.

The reforms are a response to controversial police shootings in Baltimore and a continuation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Similar reforms are being considered in the District of Columbia, Virginia and elsewhere.

The Democratic majority in Maryland had to override the veto of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to get the Maryland Police Accountability Act passed.

Hogan said the law would be unfair to police officers. 

The measures would “further erode police morale, community relationships and public confidence,” Hogan said in a statement. “They will result in great damage to police recruitment and retention, posing significant risks to public safety throughout our state.”

One of the most controversial portions of the law revises the police use-of-force policy by requiring police to first try to defuse a violent situation if possible. They could face as much as 10 years in prison for excessive use of force.

Another provision in the four-part reform law raises the damages cap on lawsuits against police from $400,000 to $890,000.

Maryland Democrats described the reforms as a way to restore public trust after high-profile killings and other violence involving police, including the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by Minneapolis police.

“Last year, I attended and participated in multiple demonstrations of people demanding change — the young and the old, people of all races and walks of life,” said Sen. Charles E. Sydnor, a Democrat who sponsored some measures included in the Maryland Police Accountability Act. “With so many situations being thrust before our eyes, we could no longer deny what we see, and I thank my colleagues for believing their eyes and listening to the majority of Marylanders.”

Maryland was the nation’s first state to approve a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which largely shields police from liability for their official actions. With the legislation approved Saturday, it is now the first to repeal the Bill of Rights.

Twenty states are in various stages of considering or enacting similar police reforms.

In Virginia, the governor on Sunday ordered an investigation of an incident in December in which an Army medic, who is Black and Latino, was pepper-sprayed by Police Officer Joe Gutierrez in the small town of Windsor, Va.

On Monday, the town announced Gutirrez had been fired. Officials said an internal investigation had determined that Gutierrez’s actions were not consistent with the department’s policies.

Video of the incident played on local and national television news broadcasts last week. It showed police ordering the man out of his car at gunpoint after they stopped him for failing to have a license tag on his car.

When he did not respond immediately, Gutierrez pepper-sprayed his face, pulled him out of his car and handcuffed him while he was on the ground. Second Lt. Caron Nazario filed a lawsuit this month in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia over the incident.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam called the traffic stop “disturbing.”

“Our Commonwealth has done important work on police reform, but we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police, the enforcement of laws is fair and equitable and people are held accountable,” Northam said.

The reforms Northam mentioned referred to new laws that ban no-knock warrants, limit use of chokeholds by police and authorize the state attorney general to investigate local departments. Previously, the investigations were done internally.

In the District of Columbia, similar reforms are likely to be coming soon, after an independent commission this month recommended to the D.C. Council sweeping changes of the police department that would reduce its workforce and shift part of its resources to community improvement programs.

The Metropolitan Police Department operates with a half-billion a year budget that could be cut dramatically under the Police Reform Commission recommendations. The report was authorized last September by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).

The Commission’s 80 recommendations on rules, procedures and laws did not specify how much money should be cut from the department’s budget.

However, its suggestions of a smaller police department with fewer duties for officers left no doubt the budget would be much smaller. The report said the D.C. Council should phase in the changes over the next three to five years.

“To help ensure the District does not revert to the current harmful overreliance on policing and incarceration, this investment should be accompanied by a realignment and reduction of [the department’s] size, responsibilities and budget,” the report says.

It said the workforce should be reduced through attrition from its current 3,650 officers and their overtime should be capped at 3%.

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