Baltimore Sun

Bal­ti­more County failed at real po­lice re­form

- By Noureen Badwi, Claire Lan­ders and Dana Vick­ers Shel­ley U.S. News · Society · Discrimination · Politics · Human Rights · Baltimore · Newport County A.F.C. · Maryland · John Bercow · American Civil Liberties Union · Maryland General Assembly · Baltimore County · Fraternal Order of Police

The Bal­ti­more County Coun­cil last week passed a weak and sym­bolic po­lice re­form bill, dis­ap­point­ing hun­dreds of com­mu­nity mem­bers. The leg­is­la­tion won wide con­sen­sus from County Ex­ec­u­tive John “Johnny O” Ol­szewski Jr. and a ma­jor­ity of coun­cil mem­bers, but it does not sub­stan­tively ad­dress the key de­mands that would bring true progress to­ward po­lice ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency.

In pass­ing this bill, coun­cil mem­bers gave enor­mous def­er­ence to the Fra­ter­nal Or­der of Po­lice (FOP) la­bor union, while the con­cerns and de­mands of residents and po­lice re­form ad­vo­cates were ex­cluded from the sup­posed “com­pro­mise” process.

At the coun­cil’s work ses­sion, the leg­is­la­tion was de­scribed as a thought­ful, in­clu­sive com­pro­mise. How­ever, State’s At­tor­ney Scott D. Shel­len­berger made clear who was and was not at the ta­ble to craft the bill: “Chief Hy­att, the FOP, the county ex­ec­u­tive’s office, the coun­cil and my­self all started work­ing dili­gently to get to a bill where we wanted to get.” This so-called com­pro­mise left out the most im­por­tant stake­hold­ers — the com­mu­nity. So it is hardly sur­pris­ing that the bill would fa­vor the sta­tus quo in­ter­ests of a law en­force­ment agency that vig­or­ously and con­sis­tently re­sists pub­lic over­sight.

Why is pas­sage of a true po­lice ac­count­abil­ity bill so im­por­tant? Be­cause there are se­ri­ous polic­ing prob­lems in our county. Just four months ago, the gov­er­nors’ office re­ported that Bal­ti­more County led the state in of­fi­cer-in­volved civil­ian deaths last year, and has been a top-three of­fender since the state be­gan track­ing that data in 2013. Even as we write this fi­nal draft, we have learned that a man, who may have been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a men­tal health cri­sis, was shot by Bal­ti­more County po­lice.

Since June, the mes­sage from our com­mu­ni­ties has been focused and very clear: The BCPD must change. The po­lice can­not po­lice them­selves. But a re­form bill that does not in­clude strong trans­parency and pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity mea­sures will bring only the il­lu­sion of re­form. The residents of Bal­ti­more County de­serve bold ac­tion from its lead­ers — not sym­bols with­out sub­stance.

That is why dozens and dozens of residents and ad­vo­cates col­lec­tively spent hours be­fore the county coun­cil, and met with in­di­vid­ual coun­cil mem­bers, the county ex­ec­u­tive and their staff to urge their sup­port for three amend­ments that would bring a mea­sure of trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity to the bill.

While our amend­ment re­quir­ing the po­lice chief to present an annual re­port on use of force to the county coun­cil passed, two piv­otal amend­ments did not. The two with­drawn amend­ments would have en­abled the po­lice chief to ap­point trained civil­ians to po­lice dis­ci­plinary hear­ing boards as vot­ing mem­bers and would also have ex­tended whistle­blower pro­tec­tions for of­fi­cers who re­port any kind of mis­con­duct. By any mea­sure, these amend­ments were rea­son­able and mod­est, and to­gether, the amend­ments would have made a real dif­fer­ence.

The bill that passed man­dates ad­di­tional train­ing, a few new poli­cies, even a dec­la­ra­tion about the sanc­tity of life. Yet, any man­date is only as ef­fec­tive as its en­force­ment mech­a­nisms. More­over, the pub­lic’s con­fi­dence in its lo­cal po­lice depart­ment will only run as deep as the pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency with which it op­er­ates. Un­for­tu­nately, the leg­is­la­tion that passed will not pro­vide ei­ther to county residents to the de­gree nec­es­sary to es­tab­lish this.

See­ing what hap­pened with this leg­is­la­tion makes it clear that real po­lice re­form is im­pos­si­ble in Mary­land with­out re­peal­ing the Law En­force­ment Of­fi­cers Bill of Rights (LEOBR). And ul­ti­mately Bal­ti­more County’s elected lead­ers are more com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing the sta­tus quo of opaque and un­ac­count­able polic­ing than clear­ing the way to pro­tect and pre­serve their con­stituents’ well-be­ing and lives. We now turn our at­ten­tion to the Mary­land Gen­eral Assem­bly and to Speaker of the House Adrienne A. Jones, a Bal­ti­more County del­e­gate with enor­mous power to bring about the real and mean­ing­ful re­forms that are so des­per­ately needed — full re­peal of LEOBR.

The peo­ple of Bal­ti­more County de­served ac­tion from our lead­ers that re­sponded to com­mon-sense pub­lic de­mands. In­stead, peo­ple in power stuck to­gether at the ex­pense of the com­mu­nity. The re­al­ity is that the leg­is­la­tion that passed sim­ply will not sig­nif­i­cantly change Bal­ti­more County’s polic­ing and its im­pacts on our residents and neigh­bor­hoods. If coun­cil mem­bers wanted to make real re­forms, they should have in­cluded the con­cerns of com­mu­ni­ties most af­fected by this bill.

Noureen Badwi (noureen­badwi@gmail .com) is chair of Bal­ti­more County Youth Speaks; Claire Lan­ders (claire­landers1 @gmail.com) is a board mem­ber of Jews United for Jus­tice, and Dana Vick­ers Shel­ley (dana@aclu-md.org) is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Mary­land.

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