ReformWorkgroup1

Audience members, made up predominantly of law enforcement, listen to testimony before the Public Safety and Policing Workgroup in Annapolis on June 23.

The Lt. Col. from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office had come armed with notes and a Powerpoint presentation, prepared to discuss hiring and recruitment policies before the Public Safety and Policing Workgroup in Annapolis on June 23.

The only problem? His slides and presentation were about the Baltimore City Police Department.“

I started doing this for all of Maryland, but it became a very long presentation. I wanted to focus on what I thought the General Assembly was more concerned with,” explained Lt. Col. Bruce Sherman about why his first slide had the words “Baltimore City” prominently at the top, even though Sherman is a representative of the sheriff’s office in Montgomery County.

Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore City), co-chair of the workgroup, explained that they were interested in hearing about practices throughout the state, not just Baltimore City, but Sherman could be excused for his perception of the workgroup’s focus.

The group, after all, was organized by Maryland House and Senate leadership as a response to the demonstrations and riots that rocked Baltimore City in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, who died April 19 from injuries sustained while in Baltimore police custody.

Of the committee’s 20 members, seven are from Baltimore City, including both co-chairs. And after two hearings, the most frequent questions have revolved around the demographics of the Baltimore Police Department, particularly with respect to its percentage of Black officers, and the percentage of officers actually living in the city (the next most frequent topic is the regularity of psychological evaluations post officer hiring).

While the Baltimore City-weighted nature of the workgroup is understandable in light of the conditions that gave rise to it in the first place, it has the potential to undermine the work of the group as it looks to identify potential statewide law enforcement reforms (and it has already robbed the workgroup of a presentation on Montgomery County’s hiring and recruiting practices). One of the most common refrains from both legislators and law enforcement officials opposed to legislative reforms in this arena is that issues of police abuse and community disconnect are a Baltimore City problem that does not touch much the rest of the state, rendering statewide action unwarranted.

“Why are we changing a law for Baltimore City that’s going to affect about 22,000 police officers, when you even mentioned it’s only a few bad apples in Baltimore City?” asked House Judiciary Committee member Del. John Cluster (R-Baltimore County) on March 12, while hearing testimony on House Bill 363, which would have created a new felony for police officers who commit, while on duty, a felony or misdemeanor carrying a potential sentence of one year or more.

The question may as well have been rhetorical, and it encapsulated one of the more common attitudes in the General Assembly where law enforcement reform is concerned. The Public Safety and Policing Workgroup is supposed to be working towards developing recommended legislative reforms for consideration by the entire legislature come January, when the 2016 legislative session gets underway. But the make-up of the group, the preponderance of questions asked by the group’s members, and a history of treating law enforcement issues as Baltimore City specific problems not meriting statewide action could work to undermine the workgroup’s efforts.

Workgroup member Del. Antonio Hayes (D-Baltimore City) admits he was “a little bit” worried that the group’s work could come off as Baltimore focused, but thinks that perception is mostly driven by our proximity to the Freddie Gray unrest and that it will recede with more hearings.

“I think there is enough representation from various parts of the state, and some vocal members of the workgroup that represent different perspectives from around the state, whether it be law enforcement or some of the concerns that have been expressed by Baltimore City . . . . But it’s been made pretty to the members of the committee that it’s a statewide workgroup looking at policing across the board,” said Hayes.

ralejandro@afro.com