Jose Luis Magana / AP

Before Freddie Gray’s death, failed attempt at legislating police reform

Civil rights activists have been trying – unsuccessfully – to make police departments in Maryland more accountable

BALTIMORE — Much of America is watching the expressions of anger from protesters on Baltimore streets in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who was severely injured on April 12 in the custody of city police. 

A glimpse of that same anger was visible at the Maryland State House, in Annapolis, more than a month before Gray’s death from spinal injuries. On March 12, state legislators listened to nine hours’ worth of testimony on 17 bills aimed at bringing transparency and accountability to police departments.

Most of the bills failed — and civil rights advocates say the Gray case has further laid bare the need for police reform.

Some of the testimony on March 12 came from Tawanda Jones, whose brother Tyrone West died in Baltimore police custody in July 2013.

Responding to law enforcement representatives who packed the room to testify against the bills, she said, “When they stood up for being opposed to this, I wish I could get the dead folks to stand up. We wouldn’t be able to fit in this room or outside the door!”

One of the bills up for discussion, modeled on policies in Connecticut and Wisconsin, would have assigned prosecution of police-involved killings to Maryland’s attorney general rather than local state’s attorneys, who often works with police to prosecute civilian criminal cases.

Another bill would have altered Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which governs the administrative disciplinary process. For instance, the bill would have kept evidence collected during an internal disciplinary investigation out of officers’ sight until after they were questioned.

“The point is that police police themselves at the trial board and we get bad results,” said Democratic Baltimore delegate Jill Carter, who authored the bill.

Dayvon Love, the director of public policy for Baltimore advocacy group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, says the changes to the Officers’ Bill of Rights would alter a few things in a case like Gray’s. Currently, law enforcement officers alleged to have used excessive force have 10 days to make a statement on the record; the bill would remove that provision, Love said. It would also create a spot for civilians on the three-member hearing board for disciplinary investigations.

The national Fraternal Order of Police and the Maryland State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to requests for comment. In his March 12 testimony, Herb Weiner, the general legal counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police in Maryland, argued that the police did not have more rights than other people under current laws. “The officer is always required to give a statement,” he said. “Criminals can remain silent. My clients are forced to give a statement by internal affairs, and it can be used against them.”

Three of the bills — to collect data on use of lethal and nonlethal force by police as well as to authorize police to wear body cameras — passed. The rest of the bills, including Carter’s bills to bring more oversight to police discipline, died in committee.

‘The public doesn’t just want a relationship with the police department. They want the ability to oversee and have input into the work of the police department. Legislation has to catch up with where the public is moving.’

Brian Buchner

president, NACOLE

Since the unrest last year in Ferguson, Missouri, many state legislators have been considering proposals to increase civilian oversight of police forces, says Brian Buchner, the president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. As in Maryland, many of the bills call for empowering civilian review boards, collecting better data and assigning independent prosecutors when police misconduct is alleged. (Some of the Maryland proposals predate the events in Ferguson; others were introduced since.) 

North Carolina Democratic state Rep. Rodney Moore submitted a bill in March that would give subpoena power to civilian review boards, set up police diversity training and collect data on police-involved homicides. Charlotte has a famously impotent civilian review board; a recent study and newspaper investigation showed that in 78 cases, the board did not rule against the police once.

Buchner says the wave of legislation reflects a change in how the public views policing. Four decades ago, he says, the sentiment was that police needed more protections. At that point, states began to adopt law enforcement officers’ bills of rights. Maryland’s took effect in 1974.

“We’ve moved past that,” said Buchner, noting that expectations have changed. “The public doesn’t just want a relationship with the police department. They want the ability to oversee and have input into the work of the police department. Legislation has to catch up with where the public is moving.”

‘That could have been me.’

Dayvon Love

director, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle

If the end of Maryland’s legislative session was a disappointment for Love, Gray’s death a few days later was more troubling. “That could have been me,” Love said.

Like Gray, Love is black, is in his mid-20s and went to school in West Baltimore. He has been out on the streets with protesters, peacefully demanding justice for Gray and trying to tell the world what it’s like to be young and black and under the thumb of the police in Baltimore’s poor, segregated neighborhoods. 

In his role with Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Love serves as a bridge between the protests that aim to bring attention to racial inequality and the powerful in the statehouse who can reshape those outcomes. He’s undeterred by losses at in Annapolis this spring.

“We’ll go back next session,” he said, “with the same bill.” 

Buchner says it’s unclear whether the national wave of police accountability legislative packages will be successful. “In California and elsewhere, it looks like bills will not make it past committee,” he said.

In the meantime, the streets will show what’s hanging in the balance. “This was a bill to do two things,” said Moore of his proposed legislation, which must pass in the North Carolina House of Representatives by Thursday to even be considered in the Senate. “Compel law enforcement to be more transparent and also to start to rebuild or stave off rapid mistrust and the deteriorating community relationship with law enforcement.

“What I saw in Ferguson,” he continued, “there was little trust between police and community and vice versa. Clearly, we don’t want those problems here in North Carolina.”

It’s too late to know whether legislation could have kept those problems out of Baltimore. Those problems are already here.

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