May 5, 2015

Baltimore Sun: Assembly leaders form group to study police issues

Maryland’s top Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday announced a new group that will study public safety issues highlighted by the Freddie Gray case.

The bi-partisan, 20-member panel is charged with recommending laws the legislature should consider when it reconvenes, including changing the controversial Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights  and creating a civilian review panel that could weigh in on hiring practices or police brutality cases.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said in a joint press release that it is imperative to strengthen the trust between police and the community, and that complex problem requires  thoughtful work.

“We incarcerate far too many people and that our rates of recidivism are completely unacceptable,” Miller said in a statement. “These issues cannot be solved overnight, but we hope to bring the stakeholders together over the interim and look at all of these issues, including the role of law enforcement in our communities.”

Added Busch: “It is critical that we have strong relationships among our citizens, communities and law enforcement.”

Plans for a work group were underway before Gray was arrested in Baltimore, on what the city’s prosecutor now says were illegal charges, and sparked more than week of protests in the city. But as the outcry over Gray’s death while in police custody took the national spotlight, the group’s work on public safety took on new meaning, aides said.

Late in the legislative session, members of the Legislative Black Caucus complained that a series of bills related to police brutality were getting stalled in committee or killed.  Several were introduced after The Baltimore Sun revealed the city paid nearly $6 million in court judgments and settlements in police brutality lawsuits since 2011.

Some of the reforms involved changes to complex laws, including the special Bill of Rights crafted for police officers. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has repeatedly criticized the legislature for not passing a law that would change it.

This year, the legislature had it’s largest freshman class in two decades, which also brought high turnover to the House and Senate committees that review such bills.  The work group allows lawmakers to tackle complex legislation in a much less compressed time frame.

A separate group is supposed to considere best practices for outfitting police with body cameras.

This group is scheduled to start its work in June during public meetings and is supposed to “engage” with community groups and the public.

Baltimore City Del. Curt Anderson and Sen. Catherine Pugh, both Democrats, will lead the group, which includes several city lawmakers and a handful of Republicans.

Anderson said the group won’t be centered in Baltimore City, and that they will hold visits at police departments across the state in order to make sure lawmakers from all over Maryland support the laws the group suggests.

“It can’t pass without statewide support,” Anderson said. “We can’t ignore that fact that most of the state doesn’t think there’s a problem with the [bill of rights] and their police practices.”

Anderson said all of the meetings will be public, and he expects more than a dozen to take place before January.

“I’m not doing this just for window dressing,” he said. “We’re going to work.”

Originally posted on The Baltimore Sun, available here.