Maryland Senate panel begins police reform hearings

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A Maryland Senate panel began three days of hearings on police accountability Tuesday, with Democrats calling for long overdue reforms and Republicans criticizing the process for lacking their inclusion so far.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee started discussing 15 reform measures they plan to take up in the legislative session scheduled for January.

Police reform already has emerged as a priority issue in Maryland in the aftermath of protests around the country after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.

“It’s incumbent upon us as legislators to seize upon this moment to enact some long overdue systemic reforms," said Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the committee in a legislature controlled by Democrats.

Republicans, however, criticized holding the bill hearings when the legislature was not in session. They also said that, unlike Democrats, they were not asked to submit any legislation.

Sen. Christopher West, a Baltimore County Republican, noted that an overhaul of the state's criminal justice system several years ago included a thorough bipartisan effort that worked toward consensus.

“Instead, today and tomorrow and Thursday, we have 15 bills all of which to a greater or lesser extent are anti-police, and that is evidenced by the fact that the police and the prosecutors have filed opposition testimony to virtually all of these bills,” West said.

Sen. Michael Hough, a Republican whose district includes portions of Frederick and Carroll counties, pointed out that Maryland lawmakers approved a police reform initiative in 2016 after the death of Freddy Gray in police custody in Baltimore a year earlier. He said he was troubled that only measures from Democrats were scheduled to be heard this week.

“If it’s the decision by the majority to defund, demoralize, the police agenda then we’re going to resist that," Hough said. "If there’s an honest effort to improve Maryland's laws, then we’ll be a part of that, but up to this point, the actions that have taken place I find very troubling, disconcerting, and go against the spirit of the Senate.”

Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who has sponsored more than 30 measures on police reform since 2013, said the state has ignored citizens' complaints as well as the millions of dollars wasted settling police lawsuits, for too long.

“It is my belief that we have been too slow, that we have taken far too long to take this issue seriously,” Carter said.

Smith emphasized that discussions are only just beginning.

“By doing this now, we’re ahead of the game, especially with the uncertainty and so many variables with what session is going to look like in the midst of a pandemic," Smith said. "This is an issue of such great importance that we have to start now.”

The House of Delegates formed a workgroup in May to consider police reform legislation. It has been meeting over the summer.

Legislation in the Senate covers issues like use of force, training and the state's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which some lawmakers believe should be scrapped. The LEOBR was designed to guarantee certain procedural safeguards to law enforcement officers during an investigation that could lead to disciplinary action.