Advocates appeared much better prepared for a second round of hearings on Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill Of Rights (LEOBR) reforms in Annapolis. They were caught a bit flat footed during the first go around.

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On Feb. 26, Senate Judicial Proceedings heard testimony on Senate Bill 566, which would reform Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill Of Rights. Changes include allowing chiefs of police to intervene in the discipline of officers at an earlier stage than is currently permitted, giving chiefs greater power to suspend officers accused of misconduct without pay, and removing a number of procedural obstacles to bringing forward complaints against police, among other things.

Advocates arrived with buses of community members to appear, and in some cases testify, at that senate hearing. Their efforts were frustrated by chair of Judicial Proceedings Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who scheduled the bill to be heard last that day.  The hearing on Senate Bill 566 began around 7:20 p.m.; the buses had left Annapolis around 4 p.m.

That left a large opposition contingent of law enforcement personnel in the hearing room, with a smaller presence of supporters to balance them out. The same was not true of the second round of hearings on the House version of the same bill, House Bill 968, sponsored by Del. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City) and heard by the House Judiciary Committee on March 12.

Prior to the day’s hearings, advocates gathered at the Thurgood Marshall memorial near the senate and house office buildings in Annapolis for a rally. It drew a diverse crowd from around the state, with particularly strong showings from the African American and Latino communities. The Rev. Dr. Heber Brown of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church and other advocates took demonstrators aside prior to the hearing in order to explain the legislative process and better prepare them for what would unfold that day.

David Lanier, a pastor in Baltimore who also owns a transportation company, donated buses so demonstrators could stay in Annapolis later, according to Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. The buses were scheduled to leave at 7 p.m., but did not actually leave until closer to 10:30 p.m., ensuring a strong community presence for the duration of the day’s hearing, especially the portion dedicated to testimony on House Bill 966.

Those who testified in support of 966, armed with a greater knowledge of the arguments the opposition would use against the bill, sharpened their arguments and were able to effectively undermine a number of claims made by the opposition during the February Senate hearing.

An oft-heard refrain from law enforcement is that proposed reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill Of Rights would create a second-class of citizens by depriving police officers of important due process protections. The Rev. Dr. S. Todd Yeary, political action chair for the Maryland state conference NAACP, turned the second class citizen argument around on the opposition during the House hearing.

“That’s exactly what LEOBR is,” said Yeary. “It is a statutory provision that allows for a distinction in the treatment and protection of safeguards because they are law enforcement officers. It is incumbent upon this body who gave them that cover, to make sure that cover used properly and, where it is necessary, make the appropriate revisions to protect the rights of the citizens that these law enforcement officers are given the authority, and are sworn, to protect.”

David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Maryland, also addressed the second-class citizen argument while simultaneously pointing out that the protections provided by the LEOBR are on par with protections afforded other public employees by state law.  “I have heard opposition to this bill saying that police officers would be treated less favorably, if these changes were made, than would other employees or would citizens, and frankly nothing could be further from the truth,” said Rocah. “Even with the changes in this bill, police officers would be treated more favorably, and would have more due process rights than any other state employee, for example.”

Rocah then pointed the House Judiciary Committee members towards the specific Maryland law governing the rights of most public employees and noted that the proposed reforms would bring law enforcement officers rights more in line with what other public employees receive.

A tact that has often emerged among legislators opposed to reforming the officers’ bill of rights has been to ask whether these reforms are really necessary statewide, or whether they address a problem that has largely been confined to Baltimore City.  Former Del. Aisha Braveboy, who testified in support of House Bill 966, pointed out that delegates often hear testimony on bills not directly relevant to their home district, but that this does not mean those bills are not important.

Dr. Kirkland Hall, former president of the Somerset County NAACP, also addressed the ‘just Baltimore City’ argument, saying, “This problem is not a big city problem. It’s not just a Baltimore City problem. Well I’m here from rural Somerset County to tell you that it is a problem we all face across America.”

The adjustments made by supporters of House Bill 966 stood in contrast to the familiar arguments made by opponents to the bill, but the tone at both the Senate and House hearings strongly indicate that opponents are running in the lead on this issue, requiring less rhetorical maneuvering on their part.

ralejandro@afro.com