When police officers are accused of misconduct – whether it’s excessive use of force or other lesser abuses – the internal police investigations are governed by the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. The rules were written into law in 1974 to protect the due process rights of accused officers, but they’ve become a flashpoint for activists who argue they impede transparency and accountability from their police departments. Yesterday, a panel of state lawmakers took up the question of reforming the so-called LEOBR.
It was the third meeting of the legislative working group charged with looking at policing reforms. Like the other hearings, advocates used the occasion to question the legislature’s commitment to meaningful policing reforms.
“I have no confidence,” said Marion Gray-Hopkins, who has been pushing for more police accountability since her son was shot to death 15 years ago by a Prince George’s County police officer. “I think it’s dog and pony show, to put it bluntly.”
When Sen. Catherine Pugh opened the hearing, she seemed a bit piqued by accusations like this.
“What we’ve done is listened, ascertained information as we will continue to do today. And talked about perhaps what we will do in the future,” the working group’s co-chair said. “We have drawn no conclusions yet.”
The legislature passed a series of police reforms in the session that ended just days before Freddie Gray died in police custody. The new laws enable police body cameras and enhance civilian review boards, among other things. But changes to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights failed. One needed change, according to civil rights lawyer Cary Hansel, is to eliminate a provision that only requires departments to investigate alleged misconduct if an allegation is made within 90 days of the incident.
“What this creates is an impetus on behalf of an officer who knows he’s done wrong to make sure somebody’s in jail for 90 days and too afraid or unable to file a complaint,” Hansel told lawmakers.
Advocates also argued against a provision that gives officers up to 10 days after a complaint is made before they have to answer investigators’ questions – They say it gives dirty cops a chance to come up with a story that’ll shield them punishment. But police union representatives disagree.
“It is a procedural framework that is fair,” said Fraternal Order of Police lobbyist Frank Boston. In Baltimore alone, nearly 300 officers were terminated after civilian complaints over the past dozen years. In the last decade, 198 officers in Prince George’s County were fired or forced out because of misconduct.
“It weeds out the bad police officers who are bad actors and it serves to protect the good police officers who are lawfully doing their jobs,” he said.
Maryland led the nation in the 1970s with bill of rights legislation designed to protect officers from frivolous complaints. But these days, advocates say the LEOBR basically leaves it up to police to investigate their own. But police union lawyer Herbert Weiner told the panel cops are best equipped to recognize bad policing and punish it.
“Who should be investigating policing? Plumbers? A painter?” he asked.
“The plumber can vote. The plumber can run for office. The plumber can serve in the general assembly. The plumber can vote to establish laws that will affect how the rights of police officers are carried forth” said Rev. Todd Yeary from the Maryland NAACP later in the session. He said civilians should be part of the review panels that investigate allegations of police misconduct. “How do we now get to this point and say that the plumber who is a citizen cannot participate in the hearing that affects that same law.
This is the balancing act that lawmakers will face when they make their legislative proposals ahead of the next General Assembly session: How do you balance the public’s demand for more police accountability and transparency, while at the same time protecting police officer’s rights to have due process when they’re accused of doing wrong.