This week is National Police Week, a time meant to honor police officers and the sacrifices they make every day on the job, so the rest of us can live in peace. Police officers in Maryland probably haven’t been celebrating though, due to the recent actions of the Maryland legislature.
Last month, Maryland lawmakers repealed the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and passed the Police Accountability Act of 2021. This sweeping legislation, passed over Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto, will fundamentally alter policing in that state. The law has gone too far.
There is no question that policing in Maryland (and all states) could be improved. The real question is whether the act will actually improve the safety of Maryland citizens or is it simply an attempt to weaken the police force, regardless of how that will impact crime and communities?
As Hogan said when he announced his veto of the legislation, “These bills would undermine the goal that I believe we share of building transparent, accountable, and effective law enforcement institutions and instead further erode police morale, community relationships, and public confidence. They will result in great damage to police recruitment and retention, posing significant risks to public safety throughout our state.”
One of the most controversial aspects of the new law is the new statewide standard set for when officers can use force. In 1989, the Supreme Court established an objective standard that police officers’ use of force must be “objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them.” This has long meant that an officer’s actions would be judged “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
The new standard mandates that force “be necessary and proportional to prevent an imminent threat of physical injury.” This new standard is too vague. Officers have to make split second decisions, often at great personal risk, and will now be unfairly and vaguely judged after the fact. Clyde Boatwright, the president of the state’s Fraternal Order of Police said his members are most concerned about the new use-of-force standard. Under the statute, an officer who is deemed to have used excessive force faces criminal penalties, including up to 10 years in prison.
Maryland’s State House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R) said he supports police reforms, but believes the use-of-force standard “goes too far.”
Who would blame them?
The new law would also limit “no-knock” warrants. These warrants could only be secured if it is demonstrated that knocking would endanger lives. How would a police officer be certain of that? The warrants would also have to be carried out during the daytime hours. This revision removes the element of surprise and advertises to criminals that nighttime is the right time to break the law.
The new law provides enhanced public access to police records. There should be more transparency in these matters. Once again though, the law goes too far as it allows for complaints that were deemed “unfounded” by investigators to be released. Officer reputations will be unfairly damaged and the trust between the community and these officers will erode.
The law limits officers’ ability to do their jobs and criminals know it. “Right now the criminal element knows that the police are now playing touch football as opposed to tackle football,” said Boatwright. Unfortunately, the bad guys still have their pads on and are marching up the field.
Ironically, this overreaching law was passed in Maryland. Baltimore is the largest city in Maryland and has the shameful and consistent reputation as one of the most dangerous in the nation. Just last year, Baltimore recorded over 300 homicides for the sixth year in a row and over 1,000 shootings.
Will the Police Accountability Act fix these problems for the citizens of Baltimore? More likely than not, it will make them worse. The police officers of Baltimore will walk away and the level of crime will soar. The residents of Baltimore will suffer.
Not surprisingly, as the bill was being debated some lawmakers used the race card once again. Maryland State Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary, a democrat, tweeted at Hogan saying the governor “doesn’t stand with Black & Brown people in the state of MD!”
What about black and brown people who wear blue?
There is no easy solution to effective police reform, but we know it should put forward fair and transparent rules, not be racially motivated and not empower criminals. Many will be watching what unfolds in Maryland over the next few years and if this law meets that threshold or takes Maryland further in the wrong direction.
Andrea G. Bottner is senior adviser to Independent Women’s Forum.