Police reform will be on the local civil rights agenda again this year — but unlike the past two years, the action will be moving from Annapolis to county seats such as Rockville. That’s because of the passage of a state police reform bill last spring that made some civilian review of police misconduct a possibility – but by no means a foregone conclusion.
The Maryland 2016 legislative session last spring was dominated by police reform, with the Freddie Gray uprising in Baltimore in April 2015 lending urgency to the effort. Democratic leadership submitted the recommendations of the so-called Maryland Public Safety and Policing Workgroup as the broad but flawed bill numbered HB1016 that police reform advocates in the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability* had to work hard to improve. Thanks in part to MCJPA advocacy — and flaws so obvious even police chiefs and sheriffs had to acknowledge them — a controversial “Recommendation #23” guaranteeing police unions undue influence over administrative trial boards was stripped from the bill, despite last-minute resistance by anti-police reform Democrats like House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario and Delegate Kathleen Dumais.
The momentum then shifted to including civilians on these trial boards. Trial boards are the most significant way most police misconduct is likely to be penalized, since criminal convictions are exceedingly rare (as the failure to convict any police of wrongdoing in the Freddie Gray’s death showed). But trial boards, too, all too rarely hand out significant penalties** — no surprise given they’ve only been composed of police until now. Meaningful, voting civilian participation is crucial.
The final version of the bill passed last spring was a mixed bag in this respect:
- [Good:] Trial board hearings must be open to the public (unless witness or undercover agent safety is at stake).
- [Good]: Local jurisdictions are authorized to appoint 2 voting or non-voting civilians to “section 1” trial boards.
- [Bad:] But the reform law also provides for an alternative (“section 5”) trial board, developed under the collective bargaining process with the police union, in which trial board members would be appointed by the police chief — and might include no voting civilians at all. Police union members facing a trial board could choose their preferred kind of board.***
The final two points obviously pose both challenges and opportunities for local civil rights advocates. Authorizing the possibility of civilian review was one of many major wins**** in HB1016 for police reform advocates in Maryland — thanks to the long, uphill battle waged by determined activists such as bereaved mother Marion Gray-Hopkins, organizers such as MCJPA’s Larry Stafford and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle’s Dayvon Love, and lawyers such as the ACLU’s Sara Love and David Rocah.
But to profit from that win in Annapolis, it must be implemented county by county, with county legislation authorizing civilian participation in “section 1” trial boards.
It’s our job to demand that happens in Rockville. Even when we succeed, citizens will have to remain vigilant to prevent a much weaker “section 5” trial board alternative from being negotiated during collective bargaining. But first we have to get the strongest possible trial boards — ones with voting civilian participation — authorized by our county council.
* MCCRC is one member of the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability; the coalition included 32BJ SEIU, 1199 SEIU, African American Democratic Club of Montgomery County, American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, NAACP, Amnesty International USA, Hollaback! Baltimore, Beats, Rhymes, and Relief, Black Church Center for Justice and Equality, CASA, City Bloc, Color of Change, Communities United, Council on American Islamic Relations, Empowerment Temple, Freddie Gray Project, Jews United for Justice, Justice League, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Making Change, Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition, Montgomery County Young Democrats, Power Inside, Prince George’s People’s Coalition, Progressive Maryland, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Universal Zulu Nation, UUs for Liberation from Racism, and more.
** Data are hard to come by, but one study of 1995-1997 trial board results suggests only about 1 in 3 cases result in suspension or dismissal; see the first footnote to this MCCRC blog post.
*** 3-107.(c)(3)(II): “If authorized by local law, a hearing board formed under paragraph (1) of this subsection may include up to two voting or nonvoting members of the public who have received training administered by the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission on the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and matters relating to police procedures…” The collective bargaining alternative is authorized in subsequent section (5) of 3-107.(c), using essentially identical language except that the police chief is the sole appointer of trial board members, including any civilian ones. While turning over all trial board appointments to the police chief is in itself less accountable than appointing some by the county, the main point is that no matter what the “local law section 1” trial board composition is, the all but certain “collective bargaining section 5” alternative negotiated by police unions could again feature only up to 2 (e.g., zero) voting or non-voting civilians.
**** The omnibus police reform bill had many other provisions to improve police-community relations and increase the odds of police accountability, including longer periods to file complaints, shorter periods for police to delay testimony, expanded data collection, transparent reporting of policies and collective bargaining agreements, and whistleblower protections. A summary based on one shared by Kim Propeack (CASA) can be viewed here.