Lawmakers in Maryland charged with exploring potential policing reform measures heard from the public in Annapolis on Thursday. More than a dozen activists from a broad coalition of labor, civil rights and faith groups turned out to call for major changes to make law enforcement more accountable, transparent and community-oriented.
Marion Gray-Hopkins son Gary Hopkins died fifteen years ago, when he was shot by a Prince George’s County police officer. The officer was indicted but not convicted. The county settled a civil case with Gray-Hopkins, who spoke with activists and reporters before testifying at the hearing. She said Maryland should put an outside prosecutor in charge when officers are accused of misconduct.
“They are investigating their own. There is something wrong with that practice,” Gray-Hopkins said. “There is a known blue wall of silence amongst the officers. And if they rat one of their own out, they will be blackballed.”
A bill to do that fell short in the general assembly earlier this year. So did a bill to change the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which governs administrative hearings for officers accused of misconduct. The American Civil Liberties Union reported that 109 people died in encounters with police between 2010 and 2014 in Maryland; 69 percent were black.
“We need convictions. That’s what we need,” Gray-Hopkins said.
Most of the police reform and accountability bills introduced in the 90-day legislative did not pass. The six bills that did were relatively minor, though they were items reform advocates had pressed for, like increasing a cap on the amount of money victims can be awarded in civil cases against the city or state. Also enacted are requirements for departments to report police involved shootings, to outline community policing efforts, and some changes to the Baltimore City Police Review Board.
Rev. Heber Brown of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore says the legislative work group assembled after the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray was too little too late.
“You set a dangerous precedent when the avenues that you set up are not responsive to our needs, and then we set up our own ways to deal with the issue. We deal with it on the street level and then you want to listen,” said Brown, pastor at the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Baltimore.
Inside the packed hearing room, Sen. Catherine Pugh, who co-chairs the legislative working group, said that the lawmakers were there only to listen. Over the course of two hours, dozens of people testified.
“It’s hard, coming where I come from, because nothing has change. I’ve been marching, I’ve been protesting, my feet are tired” Jeffen Rogers of Baltimore, a student at Coppin State University, told the lawmakers. “What I want is for you guys to find a way to hold police officers accountable for not only taking a life but becoming an oppressor.”
In addition to improve the transparency of investigations and accountability when they hurt or kill people, advocates laid out a long list of suggestions to head off injurious encounters: anti-racism and conflict resolution training, more powerful civilian oversight, and more diversity in hiring.
There were about a dozen officers in uniform in the room, though none of them testified. A smaller group of speakers, like Bruce Werneck, said they want police to be better appreciated. He told lawmakers to “imagine what it must be like to see dead bodies, to deal with rapists, murderers, thieves, drug-addled vagrants walking the streets…or a belligerent drunk in your police car.” He said law enforcement should be treated like members of the military and offered post-traumatic stress disorder screenings.
Thursday’s hearing was the only time for the work group to hear comment from the public. The lawmakers will continue to meet throughout the summer and is expected to submit legislative proposals for the next legislative session in January.