The Washington Post

Attorney general’s role could grow in Md.

Bill tied to who makes charging decisions in police-involved deaths


Maryland lawmakers who adopted sweeping changes to police accountabi­lity two years ago want to further alter how police-involved deaths are addressed by placing charging decisions in the hands of the state attorney general.

The legislatio­n builds off a package of bills the General Assembly passed that, among other things, created a division within the attorney general’s office to investigat­e the deaths and then hand its findings over to local prosecutor­s.

Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (DMontgomer­y), a lead sponsor of the bill, which received preliminar­y approval in the Senate on Tuesday, said the measure should boost public confidence in the process.

“For me, there are inherent conflicts when you have the same entity that works with law enforcemen­t officers to make cases and they work with each other all the time, to then be put in a position and have to make a decision as to whether to prosecute that same person that they work with,” he said.

The leader of an influentia­l associatio­n of local prosecutor­s has lobbied against the measure, saying lawmakers are responding to the perception of bias and not actual bias among its members. Of the 30 cases probed since the Independen­t Investigat­ions Division launched 17 months ago — more than half of which involved Black people — none so far have resulted in a charge, agency data shows.

The change in how deaths are investigat­ed came during a time of national introspect­ion on systemic racism after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapoli­s police officer in May 2020. Maryland passed bills, designed to increase transparen­cy and to improve trust between police and the communitie­s they serve, that establishe­d new rules for when police can use force and how they are investigat­ed and discipline­d.

In recent years, states across the country have moved to expand the role of the attorney general — the state’s top lawyer — in police misconduct. According to the National Conference of State Legislatur­es, Colorado, Illinois, Massachuse­tts, Nevada and Virginia empowered their attorneys general to investigat­e and pursue civil pattern and practice suits, an authority that Maryland Attorney General Anthony G. Brown is also seeking this year.

Maryland’s 2021 bill that created the new investigat­ion division originally stripped local prosecutor­s from being involved in both the investigat­ion and prosecutio­n of fatal police encounters. But after pushback from local prosecutor­s, the bill was amended to only give the attorney general’s office authority over investigat­ions.

“This is about public confidence,” Brown (D) told the Senate Judicial Proceeding­s Committee during a recent hearing on the bill. The Senate measure is on track to be sent to the House for considerat­ion before the end of the week. The House version of the bill was heard by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

During Tuesday’s debate on the bill, Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (RWicomico) said the legislatio­n lowers the public’s confidence in their local state’s attorney.

“Taking this from the state’s attorney is a message even to the people that these state’s attorneys can’t be trusted with this authority,” she said.

But Sen. Charles Sydnor (DBaltimore) said during an interview that he did not understand why the local prosecutor­s were opposed to having the attorney general take over, similar to what is done in other states.

“In essence, the attorney general is the lead law enforcemen­t officer of the state. Why would you oppose having the lead law enforcemen­t officer having the ability to enforce the law?” he said.

Rich Gibson, president of the Maryland State’s Attorneys Associatio­n, said 23 of the group’s 24 state’s attorneys voted to oppose the legislatio­n.

“I understand the desire to fight the perception of bias, but I think the real enemy is actual bias and cases of actual bias,” said Gibson, the Howard County state’s attorney.

Gibson said Howard turns the decision on whether to prosecute in a police-involved death over to Montgomery County officials and that other jurisdicti­ons have the ability to outsource as well.

Gibson said he thought the legislatio­n makes assumption­s about the relationsh­ip between local prosecutor­s and the police and wrongly removes the decision from the community that is affected by the incident.

“Just because the person has a badge and a gun and is in law enforcemen­t doesn’t mean we believe it or accept it, whole cloth. We evaluate it, decide for ourselves what we believe,” he said.

Minority Leader Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-kent) asked Smith if the bill was designed to make it easier to prosecute officers.

“It’s neither pro nor con for the officer. It is independen­t,” Smith said.

Since the independen­t division was establishe­d on Oct. 1, 2021, it has investigat­ed 30 fatal police encounters. Local prosecutor­s have declined prosecutio­n in 16 of the cases, and the other cases remain active.

The data shows that 18 Black people, eight White people and three Hispanic people were killed in the encounters and that 17 of the incidents were shootings, 10 involved police vehicles and three were in-custody deaths.

Smith said one of those incidents involved a Harford County case in which the state’s attorney said he would not pursue charges even before he received the investigat­ory report from the state.

But Minority Whip Justin Ready (R- Carroll) said he still thought the measure was unwarrante­d.

“Seems to me we’re taking a bazooka to a gnat problem,” he said during the debate.

 ?? Brian Witte/associated Press ?? Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-montgomery) said the measure related to charging decisions should boost public confidence.
Brian Witte/associated Press Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-montgomery) said the measure related to charging decisions should boost public confidence.

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