Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts assured police union officials that he would not support any changes to the law enforcement officers bill of rights (LEOBR) during a private meeting, according to testimony presented before the House Judiciary Committee last week.

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Law enforcement and community members from around the state fill the House Judiciary Committee hearing room in anticipation of testimony on a slate of law enforcement reform bills last Thursday in Annapolis. (AFRO/Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

On March 12, the committee heard testimony on HB 968, which would amend Maryland’s law enforcement officers’ bill of rights in a number of ways, including allowing police chiefs and commissioners to intervene earlier in the discipline of officers than the law currently allows.

While testifying in opposition to the bill, Herbert Weiner, general counsel of the Maryland State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, addressed an earlier claim by Del. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City) that Batts had told her his hands were tied where the discipline of officers was concerned.

“There’s a statement that said that the police commissioner of Baltimore City made mention to the delegate that he felt his hands were tied with discipline,” said Weiner. “That may have been a correct statement when he said it, but subsequent to that, myself and the union president of Baltimore City had an hour-and-a-half meeting with Commissioner Batts, and at the conclusion of that meeting, after he listened to what we had to say, he said, ‘I will not support any legislation that seeks to modify the law enforcement officers bill of rights, and nor will I appear in Annapolis for any committee in support of that.’”

Weiner repeated the claim about Batts later in the hearing in response to questioning from Del. John Cluster Jr. (R-Baltimore County).

“ just looked me in the eye and shook my hand and he said, ‘I’m not going to support any modification to the bill of rights.’ I told him it doesn’t impede your ability (to discipline officers), he asked me to explain why, and I did, and he accepted it. He shook my hand, he said, ‘I’m not going to support the testimony and I’m not coming to Annapolis.’ I haven’t seen him here in two hearings,” said Weiner, who testified that the meeting in question occurred “several months ago.”

On Oct. 6, 2014, the Baltimore Police Department released a report titled, “Preventing Harm” addressing how the department could improve its relationship with the Baltimore community. The report called for increasing the commissioner’s authority in the department’s internal disciplinary process.

“Currently, once IAD makes a sustained finding, the case is forwarded to the Charging Committee. The Charging Committee makes a punishment recommendation to the accused officer. The officer either accepts the punishment, or requests an Administrative Hearing Board,” the report read. “This process completely bypasses the Police Commissioner, i.e., the Police Commissioner has no say in the punishment. Currently, the Police Commissioner only has a say once the case has been adjudicated guilty at an Administrative Hearing Board.

“The recommendation is that the Chief of IAD submits a recommended punishment to the Charging Committee. The Charging Committee’s recommendation is then forwarded to the Police Commissioner, or his designee, for his final agreement to the recommended punishment.”

If Weiner’s claims are true, then it would appear that Batts no longer agrees with this recommendation. Further, and especially if Weiner is correct about the timing of the meeting between himself, Ryan, and Batts, then the commissioner has continued to make public statements indicating he feels his hands are tied where discipline is concerned after he made assurances to union officials that he was comfortable with the disciplinary process as governed by the LEOBR.

According to WBAL-TV, the commissioner met with a group of reporters on Feb. 4 and said, “The reality is, if go to a trial board (adjudicating a misconduct claim) and you are found innocent of those charges, there is nothing I can do with those. I can’t touch them. I can’t increase them. I have no impact on them whatsoever.”

Asked at that meeting with reporters whether he would testify in Annapolis in support of reforms to the LEOBR, WBAL-TV reports that Batts said, “Well, let’s see if I get called.”

During an interview with the AFRO conducted on Jan. 28 and published on Feb. 5, Batts avoided addressing questions about the LEOBR directly, telling the AFRO, “I’m not going to get into the law enforcement bill of rights for a couple different reasons, and what I share is that a lot of states have law enforcement bill of rights. It’s up to the legislators to take a look—I think the one in Maryland started in 1972. It’s been around for a long period of time, and I think it could—just like any other law or policy that dictates for a state, it is incumbent upon our legislators to sit down and craft documents, or overarching documents that fit their constituency. I come from California, that has a different law enforcement bill of rights than the state of Maryland, but there again, I wasn’t part of identifying those. Those were laws that are put in place for different reasons—to protect police officer rights, and also to protect citizen rights—and it’s up to the legislator to balance those.”

Batts made clear during that interview that he was taking no position on the LEOBR, a position at odds with what Weiner claims he told union officials, and one that undermines the recommendation from the “Preventing Harm” report, mentioned above, which would require changes to the LEOBR in order to be implemented.

The AFRO reached out to the Baltimore Police Department in order to verify the accuracy of Weiner’s testimony but received no reply prior to publication.

Maryland’s LEOBR was passed in 1974. According to the testimony of David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Maryland, last Thursday at the same hearing at which Weiner spoke, 14 states including Maryland have law enforcement officers’ bill of rights.