By Delegate Gabriel Acevero
“I have witnessed and endured the brutality of the police many more times than once but, of course, I cannot prove it. I cannot prove it because the Police Department investigates itself, quite as though it were answerable only to itself. But it cannot be allowed to be answerable only to itself. It must be made to answer to the community which pays it, and which it is legally sworn to protect.”
James Baldwin, one of America’s unflinchingly honest writers penned those words in 1966 and sadly, his words remain true today. Despite the nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the scourge of police brutality continues to plague our nation. In fact, police killed at least 1,055 people across the United States in 2021 alone, an increase from the 1,021 police killings recorded in 2020 according to the Washington Post. Right here in Maryland, the Montgomery County police shot and killed 21-year-old Ryan Leroux while parked in a McDonald’s driveway in my own district. And last summer, the entire nation was outraged by the footage of Ocean City Police brutalizing Black and brown teens on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
The public lynching of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 indeed forced action on police reform nationwide. In Maryland, among the police reform measures passed by the General Assembly last year was Anton’s Law, (named for Anton Black, a 19-year-old college athlete who died in police custody on the Eastern Shore); legislation I introduced with Senator Jill P. Carter (Baltimore City), to increase police transparency and accountability. While there is no denying that the actions taken in the last session were the furthest the General Assembly has ever gone on police reform, significant work still remains.
As a member of the 2020 House Workgroup on Police Accountability in Maryland, I raised several concerns related to policing in our state that I believe are critical to addressing and building public trust in our law enforcement agencies. I presented these concerns in the form of amendments to the 2021 Police Accountability Act, amendments that unfortunately failed. Nonetheless, I believe the concerns below, as well as others, represent the unfinished work of police accountability in Maryland and present a call to action for my fellow state legislators.
1. Ending qualified immunity
Qualified immunity is the judge-made legal doctrine that protects law enforcement from individual liability when they break the law, in effect denying victims of police brutality due process in court. Simply put, qualified immunity is antithetical to accountability. Accordingly, ending qualified immunity as a defense for law enforcement brutality allows for officers who abuse the public’s trust and their positions to be held accountable in courts.
While the Supreme Court and the United States Congress can each play a key role in ending qualified immunity, we in the state legislatures can and must do our part. To this end, in this session, I have introduced HB 463 in the Maryland House of Delegates which would end the defense of qualified immunity in state court for law enforcement officers. When passed, HB463 will ensure that officers who engage in reckless behavior displaying a wanton disregard for human life can be held personally accountable for their misdeeds and answerable to the communities that pay their salaries. As we have seen in too many instances both here in Maryland and across the country, it is the public that is left “holding the bag” in civil cases for the acts of these rogue officers. I believe we should join our counterparts in Colorado, New Mexico and most recently California is ending this legal doctrine that has no statutory basis.
2. White nationalism in law enforcement
Racialized policing has always been an unfortunate feature of law enforcement in America, tracing its roots to slave patrols. Yet, there has been a disappointing failure to confront white nationalism in law enforcement despite mounting evidence that it still presents a clear and present danger. White nationalism in law enforcement is one of the most serious yet least talked about aspects of police violence in America. Last year, Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, released an unredacted FBI assessment on White nationalism in law enforcement. The findings of the report should alarm anyone who cares about the safety of our communities and is committed to building public trust in law enforcement institutions. In fact I believe that is a call-to-action for legislative leaders as well as our state’s governor. If we ever hope to end racialized policing we must investigate and root out the problem that operates in the shadows and outside of the headlines.
Current law requires that the Maryland Police Standards and Training Commission (MPSTC) certify potential and current police officers ensuring that they pass criminal history checks, undergo mental health screenings, and satisfy certain physical agility requirements. To this end, I have introduced HB524 which is designed to confront and resolve the persistent problem of explicit racism in law enforcement. When passed HB524 will simply add an additional requirement prohibiting affiliation with White supremacist organizations as a logical and necessary extension of MPSTC’s existing screening requirement.
3. Ending no-knock warrants
The “no-knock warrant” is a product of the intentional war on drugs that has allowed law enforcement officers to ignore the steps of physically knocking on a person’s door and announcing themselves before serving a warrant. No-knock warrants are typically used for low-level drug searches and are not necessarily employed to save lives. In fact, empirical evidence strongly suggests that no-knock warrants create a substantial risk of violent confrontation between homeowners and law enforcement officers while doing relatively little to curb criminal activity. We have seen too many examples like that of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, or more recently Amir Locke in Minnesota, to ignore the dangers posed by executing no-knock warrants. The human cost, particularly for Black and Brown communities is too high for us to allow a practice like this to continue.
Last year the General Assembly placed restrictions on when and how no-knock warrants can be served, failing to pass a complete ban. Our counterparts in the Florida and Oregon legislatures have already banned the use of no-knock warrants, and it is time that we do too here in Maryland. Accordingly, I have introduced HB 532 banning the use of no-knock warrants in Maryland to do exactly that.
4. Protecting Minors During Interrogations
Our state’s criminal laws are based on the premise that juveniles accused of crimes deserve and should be afforded certain protections beyond those afforded to adults. While current law allows police in most instances to lie about evidence during an interrogation to pressure the accused into confessing to a crime, we know that false confessions are a leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. As the infamous case of the Exonerated Five demonstrates, one need not look too far to understand the consequences of false confessions made by juveniles secured by deceptive police interrogation tactics.
We should join our colleagues in both Illinois and Oregon in curbing the use of deceptive tactics in the interrogation of juveniles by creating a rebuttable presumption that evidence secured using such tactics is involuntary and inadmissible. Accordingly, I have introduced HB1374 as further protection for accused juveniles creating a rebuttable presumption that a statement made by a minor during a custodial interrogation is involuntary and is inadmissible in a juvenile or criminal proceeding where the law enforcement officer uses knowingly false information to elicit the information.
5. Prosecutorial Accountability
Those charged with administering our criminal legal system must be seen as honest brokers, operating outside of the undue influence of special interests, and beholden to the community only. To the extent money in the form of campaign contributions is allowed to compromise, or even give the appearance of compromising, the integrity of those charged with that responsibility, the system risks destruction from a lack of faith in its efficacy. The relationship between elected prosecutors and police groups or associations at best presents a conflict of interest, and at worst, is impermissibly incestuous. It also presents serious implications for police accountability. Consider, according to Mapping Police Violence, the United States criminal legal system declines to prosecute 97 percent of police brutality cases nationwide, only 1 percent result in a conviction, and pursuant to those convictions, sentences are usually less than what a civilian would receive for a similar offense. We need a complete overhaul of the prosecutor-police relationship.
When Anton Black was killed, the Caroline County State’s Attorney declined to prosecute not one, but all of the officers involved in his death. The role of prosecutors should be to seek accountability on behalf of the public, at least in theory. What currently exists is far from that. Rather, state attorneys are more concerned about whether police groups would finance their future campaigns than the people who elected them. HB1373 is designed to restore that essential faith and trust that for myriad reasons has been eroded in recent years. When passed, it will remove even the appearance of systemic bias by ensuring the agencies charged with the investigation and prosecution of police-involved crimes are free from bias. Thus, it requires that those elected officials, specifically the Attorney General and respective states’ attorneys, who have received campaign contributions from organizations representing and acting on behalf of law enforcement officers be precluded from investigating allegations of criminality on the part of those same law enforcement officers.
6. Police Free Schools
As legislators, we have a responsibility to make decisions rooted in data. And the data tells us that the School Resource Officer or police model in Maryland is seriously flawed. According to our state’s Department of Education, nearly 70 percent of school-based arrests were for minor infractions such as disruption, disrespect, trespassing, fighting, and minor drug-related offenses. What’s more, Black students account for a third of enrollment in Maryland public schools, yet they make up over half of all its arrests. In my own county, footage of an incident surfaced online showing two Montgomery County police officers terrorizing and handcuffing a 5-year-old Black boy angering many not only in our community but nationally. To maintain the status quo is to perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline that siphons Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and students with disabilities from the classroom to the jailhouse. Our kids need counselors, behavior specialists, nurses and restorative justice practitioners, not handcuffs.
It doesn’t have to be like this, particularly where you can imagine and implement more effective alternatives. The Police-Free Schools Act, legislation I introduced in previous sessions, and plan to re-introduce in coding sessions, would end the damaging and ineffective school police model by prohibiting school districts state-wide from contracting with police departments to station officers in schools. On a local level, the Montgomery County Council recently voted to remove SROs from Montgomery County Public Schools demonstrating that it can be done. Moreover, in my district, MCPS parents have stepped up to create “Dads on Duty”, a community initiative, run by fathers who patrol school halls, encourage our kids, and help keep school grounds safe. We should embrace ideas such as this instead of policies that criminalize our kids. Our kids deserve an affirming educational experience; not cops.
State legislatures are in the driver’s seat when it comes to police accountability. We define what is permissibly policing, and the legislation we pass can have a profound ripple effect on federal policy. With negotiations in the Congress stalled on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the BREATHE Act, state legislatures across the country must act to transform public safety. Incrementalism is not the approach to the immediate problem of police violence. We owe it to the marginalized, the Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Queer and Transgender Marylanders, to be bold in our policymaking by transforming, not tweaking, our current public safety system to ensure greater transparency, trust and accountability. The General Assembly has unfinished work, and the time to act is now.
Delegate Gabriel Acevero represents Montgomery County’s 39th District in the Maryland House of Delegates. He is the 2nd Vice-Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and was a member of the 2020 House Workgroup on Police Accountability in Maryland.
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