After hours of intense negotiation, Maryland lawmakers passed a sweeping series of police reform bills Wednesday, including a repeal of the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
The package is the culmination of months of debate that began over the summer after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
It includes bills that will create new procedures for police discipline, place limits on the use of no-knock warrants, create a statewide standard for the use of force and require the use of body-worn cameras by police departments.
“There are people in each and every single district in this state that will be affected by this legislation,” said Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat who helped shepherd the legislation through the House.
With the Maryland General Assembly’s session set to end on Monday, Democrats faced a fast-approaching deadline to pass one of their most prominent goals of the session.
The House voted 97-39 to pass an omnibus bill that deals with police discipline. The vote was largely along party lines but included a small number of Republicans, including minority leader Nicholaus Kipke (R-Anne Arundel County), voting for the measure.
“Here I think we have a balanced bill,” Kipke said. “It started out in a place that I thought would do great harm. … I think what we’ve struck here is an appropriate middle ground that will do some good.”
By late Wednesday afternoon, the Senate had passed all four of the bills that received approval from the House. The Senate later voted in favor of the omnibus House bill, as well.
The bill now heads to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk. Hogan has not said how he plans to act on the police reform measures.
The 66-page bill covers a broad array of topics but targets the police discipline process, which had previously been defined in the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
Reform advocates have long called for a repeal of the 1974 bill, which created enhanced due process procedures for police officers facing internal investigations and discipline. Even some police officials said the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights hampered their ability to discipline officers.
The new law would repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and create alternative procedures, including police accountability boards to hear civilian complaints and administrative charging committees to review internal investigations and recommend discipline.
Hurdles in the Senate
Debate lasted much longer in the Senate, where Republicans objected strongly to bills that received major amendments in the House. The Senate originally sent nine police reform bills to the House, but delegates there shrank the package to four bills.
The bills that passed will make some police disciplinary records available for public inspection, require independent investigations when an officer’s use of force results in death, restrict the use of search warrants under some circumstances and begin the process of returning local control to the Baltimore Police Department.
More controversial was a bill that would create a statewide use of force standard and criminalize officers who intentionally use excessive force.
The amended bill says that officers cannot use force unless it is “necessary and proportional to prevent an imminent threat of physical injury … or to effectuate a law enforcement objective.”
Republican senators said the law would make it more difficult to recruit and retain police officers.
“What we should be doing is lifting up and respecting the profession of policing and saying we are going to go after the bad apples, but we’re also going to have a realistic idea of what we’re expecting from you and we’re going to have realistic use of force rules,” said Sen. Justin Ready (R-Carroll County).
Republicans were also critical of the legislative process. Several said the police reform bills were rushed and returned from the House drastically changed.
But Democrats said the changes were needed to correct historic injustices.
Senator Obie Patterson (D-Prince George’s County) broke down in tears as he recalled being born in the South during segregation.
“How much more time do you think you’re going to need?” he asked colleagues who said the bills were rushed. “We’ve waited two or three generations for this day, and I am so happy and pleased to have been a part of this process.”
Madeleine O’Neill covers the Maryland State House and state issues for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @maddioneill