Following the video recorded death of unarmed George Floyd who was killed during an arrest in Minneapolis in May of 2020, thousands of protestors took to the streets in cities all across the nation to call for an end to the long legacy of racial injustice and police brutality experienced by people of color in our nation.
On June 25, 2020 at the National Convention of the League of Women Voters of the United States the following resolution that was proposed by 47 state and local Leagues was adopted nearly unanimously: The League of Women Voters shall advocate against systemic racism in the justice system and, at a minimum, for preventing excessive force and brutality by law enforcement. We also call for prompt actions by all League members to advocate within every level of government to eradicate systemic racism, and the harm that it causes. We resolve second, that the League help our elected officials and all Americans recognize these truths to be self-evident; that Black, Indigenous and all people of color (BIPOC) deserve equal protection under the law; and that we demand solutions for the terrible wrongs done, so that regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and gender identity or sexual orientation we may truly become a nation "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
In 2015 the ACLU released a report on deaths during police encounters in Maryland from 2010 to 2014. Key findings of that report included:
1) At least 109 people died in police encounters in Maryland between 2010-2014. These deaths were dispersed throughout the state in 17 counties and Baltimore City.
2) Sixty-nine percent of those who died in a police encounter (75 people) were Black. Blacks make up 29 percent of Maryland’s population.
3) Five Black people died for every White person who died, when the size of the Black and White populations were taken into account. Put another way, the rate at which Blacks died by a police encounter (deaths per population size) was five times that of Whites.
Following the death of Freddy Gray in 2015, numerous pieces of legislation to address the issue of policing were introduced in the 2016 and subsequent sessions of the General Assembly. A summary of those pieces of legislation was presented in a briefing to the Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland. However, these modifications to the law were not getting to the heart of the problem which is why House Speaker Jones appointed the work group.
Meanwhile a group of advocates that included individuals and family members who have been impacted by police violence, civil rights activists, religious leaders, law centers and advocates for a whole host of marginalized groups, came together to agree on five reforms that they believe would make a significant improvement to police practices in Maryland. These reforms were widely circulated and nearly 100 organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Maryland, signed on to support them.
Currently legislators are working with advocates to finalize language for bills for the 2021 session of the General Assembly to enact these reforms. When the bills have been assigned bill numbers and sponsors, an update will be sent out to interested readers of this report.
These are the five areas of change in policy that are being sought by legislation:
- Repeal the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights: The Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR) is the state law that governs the process for police discipline in Maryland. It gives special rights to police officers that other state employees to not have and it prevents communities form investigating misconduct that could lead to discipline. Maryland was the first state to pass such a law. While some states have similar laws on the books, most states do not. Maryland’s law is considered one of most extreme in the country. Because of LEOBR it is very rare for complaints about police conduct to result in consequences.
- Restore Control of the Baltimore City Police Department to the residents of the City of Baltimore Since the 1860’s the Baltimore Police Department has been under control of the state of Maryland, not the city of Baltimore. The residents of Baltimore have the right to a police department that is accountable to them, not the state. Local officials lack the authority to enforce accountability and policing reforms, some of which were mandated by the Justice Department following the death of Freddie Grey.
- Increase Transparency in the Investigations of Police Misconduct If an individual files a complaint of police misconduct, they do not have the right to know how the complaint was investigated. They are only informed of the outcome of the investigation and whether any disciplinary measures were imposed. The public does not know whether the investigation was thorough. For example, what evidence did they look at, who was interviewed, did they review body camera footage? Secrecy about investigations is undermining the trust that police are being held accountable for their actions.
- Remove law enforcement from our children's schools. Studies have shown that police presence in schools does not reduce school shootings or school-based violence. National studies show that students in schools with a police officer are five times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct and twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement for infractions such as fist-fights than students in schools without a police presence. The state allocates approximately $10 million annually to help subsidize School Resource Officers. We are supporting legislation to reallocate that funding to provide behavioral and mental health specialists in schools.
- Limit the use of force by law enforcement Maryland is one of only nine states without a statewide use of force law. However, no state or federal law meets international standards for police use of force. Use of force in Maryland is governed by two Supreme Court cases. In 1989, the court authorized use of force when it is “objectively reasonable.” The other authorizes lethal force to prevent a person who is incarcerated from escaping if there is probable cause to believe the suspect poses a significant threat of being violent. There needs to be a clear definition of lethal and non-lethal force and the circumstances under which they may be used.
One of the challenges to passing this legislation is the perception that it is anti-police. However, the coalition recognizes that the vast majority of police officers are committed to performing their duties in a professional and ethical manner. These reforms will hold those police who are guilty of misconduct accountable and possibly remove them from policing. In turn, that will increase confidence and trust in police and thus make their jobs easier. Another concern is that these reforms will reduce safety. Even if school resource officers aren’t assigned to be in schools on a regular basis they can still be called if a serious incident warrants their intervention. However, instead resorting to law enforcement as a first resort, it will require schools to apply more appropriate approaches first.
As was mentioned in the opening of this article, policing in America has had a troubled history of discrimination and abuse. At last, the public is waking up to the fact that tolerating practices that further the inequalities in our society must not be tolerated. Police have enormous power and authority which must be used in a responsible and ethical way. We must make sure that policing is equitable, transparent and democratic.