Showdown looms over law protecting police in misconduct cases

By Mark Puente The Baltimore Sun

January 3, 2015

As the General Assembly prepares for its 2015 session, a showdown is looming over efforts to limit legal protections for police officers accused of brutality and other misconduct.

As police actions are scrutinized nationwide, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and several members of Baltimore’s legislative delegation say changes are needed to handle rogue officers in the Police Department. The officials have called attention to a state law that governs the disciplinary options of police leaders — prohibiting, for example, a suspension without pay unless an officer is charged with a felony.

“Everyone else that does wrong is put in a position to be held accountable immediately,” Rawlings-Blake said. “Officers aren’t subject to those things.”

But any revision to Maryland’s decades-old police Bill of Rights would need to overcome powerful lobbying efforts from law enforcement groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents about 22,000 officers in Maryland. The last significant change to the law occurred more than 10 years ago.

“The [law] is working as it should,” said Washington County Sheriff Douglas Mullendore, president of the Maryland Sheriff’s Association. “There are no statewide problems with the [law] as it is currently written.”

Larry Harmel, executive director of the state Chiefs of Police Association, said police leaders outside Baltimore are not seeking changes to the law. He declined to speculate on potential legislative moves but said “obviously there’s a concern” within the organization, adding: “Our antennas are up.”

The increased scrutiny of the law follows a six-month Baltimore Sun investigation that revealed the city has paid $5.7 million since 2011 for 102 court judgments and settlements in lawsuits alleging police misconduct. The victims of the alleged beatings ranged from teenagers to octogenarians, and in almost every case, criminal charges were dropped against them.

In early October, Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts unveiled a sweeping plan, called Preventing Harm, to reduce brutality, including the possibility of equipping officers with body cameras. They reiterated that they are committed to restoring public trust in the department, and the mayor criticized the police Bill of Rights, saying that Batts needs wider authority to discipline officers.

The law mandates that disciplinary actions against police go through a three-person trial board, which makes decisions based on the preponderance of the evidence. The law affords officers 10 days to get an attorney before they can be interrogated by superiors in internal investigations. And in an attempt to avert frivolous claims, the law states that an officer cannot be investigated on a brutality accusation unless it is made within 90 days of the alleged incident. That does not stop agencies from investigating complaints if they learn about them from other sources.

Rawlings-Blake said recently that she would lead the charge for changes if solutions could be found to better investigate and prosecute problem officers. She said she wasn’t ready to discuss specifics but stressed her commitment to doing something to “hold bad cops accountable.”

The city Police Department has instituted a host of reforms in the past two years, including toughening the trial boards and forming a team to scrutinize incidents in which an officer uses force. Discipline cases are also moving faster within the department.

But Rawlings-Blake said further changes are needed. Lawmakers, she said, should consider reforms amid the national uproar over white police officers in Missouri and New York being cleared in the deaths of unarmed black men. Those grand jury exonerations triggered protests from Baltimore to Berkeley, Calif.

“It’s critically important if we are going to continue building trust between the community and police,” Rawlings-Blake said.

In November, Baltimore Dels. Jill P. Carter and Curtis Anderson held a public hearing to gather input from more than 100 residents about potential changes to put before the 2015 General Assembly, which convenes Jan. 14. Dozens of residents urged lawmakers to make the police Bill of Rights less protective of officers and to give civilian review boards power to investigate complaints.

Anderson favors changes that would make public any discipline an officer receives for misconduct — information now shielded by state law. He also wants the law to strengthen Baltimore’s civilian review board.

He said he understands the concerns from law enforcement groups and stressed that he isn’t looking to revamp the entire police Bill of Rights. “We’re going to go forward with this to explore the changes that need to be made.”

Carter has unsuccessfully proposed several bills in recent years to change the law, including one that would have forced police to post all disciplined officers’ names online along with their infractions. Another would have eliminated the 10-day waiting period before an officer can be interrogated.

She acknowledged that it is an uphill battle to change the law, but said police misconduct occurs statewide.

“It’s disingenuous and insulting to think there aren’t problems across the state,” she said. “It’s a statewide issue.”

Maryland’s law, enacted in 1974, “appears to accommodate officers more than any other state,” except possibly Rhode Island, according to a 1999 University of Maryland study.

Still, “the fact that police agencies must investigate numerous complaints against police officers underscores the importance of having extensive provisions concerning internal investigations” in the law, the study concluded.

Supporters of the law believe changes could lead to other problems, such as public officials firing officers for political reasons or “emotional firings” after high-profile incidents — not necessarily because an officer did something wrong.

Del. John Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who spent 15 years as a police officer and sergeant in the county, said he will fight efforts to change the law. “It’s a few bad apples that have caused this whole thing to become an issue.”

The law gives police leaders full authority to fire officers, Cluster said. He pointed to the firing in 2011 of a Baltimore officer who was caught on video berating and pushing a 14-year-old skateboarder at the Inner Harbor and failed to document the incident in a report.

A three-member trial board found the 19-year veteran not guilty of the most serious administrative charges of using excessive force and language, but found him guilty of failing to write a report and fill out a citizen-contact form. The panel recommended that he be suspended for six days and lose six days of leave.

But then-Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III rejected the recommendation and fired the officer. He had the authority to escalate punishment as long as he stayed within guidelines. The infraction of failing to write a report gave him the widest discretion — from no punishment to termination.

The law’s provision that governs suspensions sparked outrage in September, when the public learned that a patrol officer was caught on a city surveillance camera repeatedly punching a man at a bus shelter on North Avenue. The incident occurred in June, but police leaders did not see the video until the victim’s attorney filed a lawsuit. At the time, Batts could only order a suspension with pay.

Anger grew when the public learned that the officer remained on the street for months because an Internal Affairs supervisor did not alert police leaders. The video also showed that one officer restrained the victim during the beating and other officers did not intervene.

In October, as the Police Department released a plan to reduce brutality, Batts criticized the state law’s restrictions on his disciplinary power.

Batts said at a news conference that the law prevents him from taking swift action when officers commit egregious misconduct. Highlighting the beating at the bus shelter, Batts noted that police leaders cannot suspend an officer without pay unless there is a felony charge. That needs to change, he said.

Yet even as the mayor calls for changes to the law, Batts recently indicated that he would take a more limited role on the issue. In November, he sent an email to the force, saying that many officers “have heard rumors” that he is working to change the police Bill of Rights.

“Let me be as clear as I can be on this matter; it is a legislative issue that is best left to the elected representatives to decide,” his message said.

“I am not taking a position on this issue and the Baltimore Police Department is not taking a position on this issue. I will not give my support to any attempt to change the law. I will not volunteer my testimony in Annapolis on this issue. I have not and will not submit any letters about my position on this issue.”

That declaration surprised Anderson, who said that Batts, in a conversation, ‘”led me to believe that he would be willing to support changes.”

Rawlings-Blake said Batts is not sending mixed messages about his position on the law. She reiterated that he needs the power to swiftly discipline officers, but carries the dual role of being an officer and commissioner.

“You have to strike the right balance,” she said. “I know that he wants the ability to question officers. There are a lot of ways for us to get to that goal.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

mpuente@baltsun.com

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