In 1974, Maryland became the first of around 20 states to establish a police bill of rights — laws that help shield officers from accountability by blocking civilian inquiries into misconduct on the force and erasing records of complaints filed against officers after a period of time. On Saturday, the Old Line State became the first to revoke such legislation, after Democratic lawmakers overrode Republican governor Larry Hogan’s veto of an expansive new police-reform bill.
The new laws, which come amid a nationwide push toward law-enforcement reform in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, are among some of the most significant criminal-justice changes in the U.S. to date. Measures in the bill include the mandatory use of body cameras, the establishment of a civilian role in police discipline, and a restriction on the use of no-knock warrants. One of its most important aspects involves an increased standard for use of force, requiring officers to first use de-escalation tactics. According to the law, force, which must be “necessary and proportional,” can only be used to halt “an imminent threat of physical injury” or to “effectuate a legitimate law enforcement objective.” If an officer has been found to use excessive force, they can be subject to a criminal penalty. The training and use-of-force limits begin in July of next year, while body cameras will be statewide by July 2025.
The police disciplinary process will also be opened up to civilians, by establishing local administrative charging committees, which can recommend what sort of internal discipline a cop should face. And while some reform advocates pushed for full civilian control on disciplinary matters, police chiefs cannot impose less severe punishments than what the committee recommends. Another new law, which was not vetoed by Governor Hogan, transfers the investigations of police-involved deaths from local law enforcement to an independent office run by the state attorney general.
The laws enacted this weekend also include a bill enabling the release of disciplinary records; previously, Maryland was one of around 20 states in which the public was blocked from seeing an officer’s history of complaints or punishments for misconduct. The measure, which will take place in October, is named after Anton Black, who was killed in 2018 after being restrained and forced to the ground by a police officer. While the 19-year-old college student’s family spent months trying to find out more information about his death, the officer involved, Thomas Webster IV, was eventually barred from employment as a cop in Maryland after it emerged that he failed to disclose close to 30 use-of-force reports from his time as an officer in Delaware. Over the state line in Dover, he was barred from employment as a cop — and received a $230,000 settlement for his separation from the city police department — after kicking a Black man in the face during a traffic stop.