The trainings are part of a major mobilization by the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police against new police accountability measures, possibly including the abolition of the powerful Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.
A House work group is meeting Thursday afternoon and could vote on whether to propose repealing the bill of rights, which provides broad protections to police accused of wrongdoing.
“We’re just trying to take a proactive approach,” said Clyde Boatwright, president of the Maryland FOP, which is also considering print and television ads to sway opinions.
Boatwright said the police union is determined to not let “an incident that happened 2,000 miles away,” referring to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, affect the way police in Maryland do their jobs and are disciplined.
“We’re in discussions about using every available resource to get this message out to the members of the public and to lawmakers,” he said. “It’s early, but everything is on the table.”
Those who want to see the bill of rights repealed and stricter accountability measures put in place also are mobilizing: Last month, the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability placed full-page advertisements in the Afro American Newspaper, The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, demanding that the legislature enact five major changes.
They include repealing the bill of rights, reforming the Public Information Act to allow disclosure of all police misconduct complaints, enacting a statewide use-of-force policy, removing school resource officers from schools, and returning control of the Baltimore City Police Department to the city.
The group’s No. 1 priority is the repeal of the bill of rights. They say the protections, which include allowing officers to wait five business days before they have to cooperate with internal inquiries about misconduct and ensuring that only fellow officers, not civilians, investigate police, have made it nearly impossible to hold officers accused of wrongdoing accountable.
“It has been clear for decades that police cannot be trusted to police themselves,” the ad says. “You have the power to fundamentally change abusive police practices, not just offer cosmetic changes that uphold the worst aspects of a white supremacist system.”
The FOP is not only seeking out members of the House work group on police issues, which is expected to decide Thursday what recommendations to give House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County). Instead, the union is extending invitations to the training sessions to the entire 188-member General Assembly, which will consider whatever bills are proposed in the 2021 session.
Del. Benjamin T. Brooks Sr. (D-Baltimore County), who wants stricter rules in place for police, attended one of the trainings and found himself firing his weapon at the simulated hostage-taker. Only after he pulled the trigger did he notice an infant seat on the countertop, with a baby inside.
“I could have possibly hit that baby,” Brooks said in an interview later, adding that the training, while illuminating, did not alter his views on how officers should be disciplined and what protections they should have. “I can understand how those situations would lend themselves to the officers reacting. But there has got to be other alternatives.”
Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), who supports a complete repeal of the bill of rights, said he gets the sense that the union is worried about the fate of the broad protections police enjoy in Maryland, at a time when communities nationwide are protesting excessive and disproportionate uses of force.
“There is a level of angst. . . a feeling that something is coming and they are not sure what,” said Barron, who has sponsored unsuccessful legislation in past years to increase public access to police misconduct records.
He said he was unable to participate in the training but attended a presentation on the bill of rights.
At the same time, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has held hearings on more than a dozen possible policing bills, including a statewide use-of-force policy that would ban the use of chokeholds and require public disclosure of police personnel records.
The General Assembly is younger and more diverse than it has ever been, with less-senior and more-liberal-leaning members ascending to key positions. Many members are pushing for sweeping and substantive changes in a broad range of policy areas; police reform is shaping up to be the first major test of their influence.
“Marylanders, especially this Marylander, is not willing to sacrifice any more Black lives for the status quo,” Del. Wanika B. Fisher (D-Prince George’s), a member of the House work group who attended the training, told a panel of law enforcement officers during a recent hearing.
So far, it remains unclear whether the training exercises are changing any minds. But Boatwright said he has gotten positive responses.
“We understand the climate and tone nationally on police reform, and we appreciate and respect it,” he said. “We welcome change, but we want sensible change. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes.”
Brooks, who is not in the House work group, said he agreed to attend the training because he thinks it is important to hear both sides. Del. Ronald L. Watson (D-Prince George’s), who supports the bill of rights — but wants to change the name of the statute — said the same. Like Brooks, Watson said attending the training did not change his mind about police reform.
Watson, who helped the union organize the trainings for lawmakers, said he hoped to “dispel some of the mischaracterizations” about what police do and what the bill of rights covers.
In addition to firing his gun at the hostage-taking husband, Brooks shot a man during the exercises who was holding a weapon behind his back and wouldn’t obey commands to drop it. When the man fired a shot, Brooks fired back, hitting the man’s upper arm and chest.
Brooks said the training made him empathize with the split-second decisions officers have to make. But he noted that even the U.S. Constitution has been amended and said the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights may need to be amended, too.
“I think it has morphed itself into something where the officer is never, ever wrong,” he said. “You have the fox guarding the hen house. Where is the transparency? That’s my concern.”