Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announces her proposed reforms of the LEOBR at a press conference on Feb. 2 at City Hall. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called for changes to the law enforcement officers bill of rights (LEOBR) that would grant police commissioners greater power to discipline officers guilty of misconduct, and create a new felony that would apply to officers accused of any misdemeanor carrying a maximum possible sentence of over one year in prison. While the Baltimore police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 (FOP 3), has come out against the proposed changes, community leaders have expressed cautious support for the mayor’s initiatives.

Announcing, Feb. 2, what she called “a balanced and achievable package of legislation” to be presented to the Maryland General Assembly for consideration, Rawlings-Blake outlined reforms to the LEOBR that she said would assuage concerns in the community that police officers are allowed to play by a different set of rules than everybody else when it comes to misconduct.

“If a police officer commits the same assault (that a civilian could be accused of) in uniform, they can receive the same punishment,” said the mayor. “And the police commissioner would be empowered to act quicker in holding that police officer accountable.”

In thus saying, the mayor was referring to the charge of second degree assault, a misdemeanor that is among the most common charges received by police officers accused of violent misconduct against a citizen, but which does not suspend the officer’s contractual right to a trial board, an internal police disciplinary process.

By creating a new felony of ‘misconduct in office’ that would include any misdemeanor with a maximum possible sentence of over one year in prison (second degree assault carries a maximum possible 10 years) committed while on duty, a police commissioner would be empowered to suspend the accused officer without pay once charges are filed, and if the officer is found guilty in a court of law, discipline that officer outside of the trial board process. Under the current protections offered by the LEOBR, officers accused of a misdemeanor such as second degree assault can only be suspended with pay.

Gene Ryan, president of the FOP 3, issued a statement, Feb. 3, denouncing the mayor’s proposals.

“To suggest that we, as a profession, should become a second class of citizenry, with a separate set of laws by which we are governed, is unconscionable,” read the statement, in part. “The current does not exist to allow ‘bad’ cops to escape punishment. . . . It exists to guarantee that, as a profession, we are not alienated from our rights as citizens.”

The statement concluded by saying that the FOP 3 would “combat any attempt to disrupt the LEOBR.”

Asked to respond to the FOP’s position, Kevin Harris, the mayor’s chief of public affairs, said via email that these legislative proposals are “a continuation of reforms already in place” that have resulted in fewer misconduct lawsuits against the city, and that driving the number down further requires more than can be achieved through internal reforms of the Baltimore Police Department alone.

“Ultimately the police commissioner needs more power and authority to hold the very small number of officers accountable that act out of line,” said Harris. “This legislative package is designed to give him additional authority and address the community concerns that police officers are allowed to play by a different set of rules than everybody else.”

For Leo Burroughs, chairperson of the ‘Committee of Concerned Citizens’ in Baltimore City, the mayor’s proposals address a definite limitation of the current police disciplinary process.

“It’s a surprise to many in our community . . . that the commissioner doesn’t have the power that we thought he had to control the behavior , and to discipline, officers as one would expect, given the bureaucracy and given the fact that he is commissioner of the Baltimore City Police Department,” said Burroughs, who added that while the mayor’s initiative sounded “credible,” its success would hinge on a broader package of reforms including police-worn body cameras, and greater civilian review possibilities over police misconduct cases.

The mayor did say that Baltimore’s police body camera program would be announced “soon.”

Russell Neverdon, prominent Baltimore area defense attorney and a former military police officer for 12 years, said he applauded the mayor’s attempt to enact changes to the LEOBR, though he would have preferred the mayor had moved on this issue sooner.  For Neverdon, officers must be protected, but their work is too easily undermined when the inability to discipline officers for misconduct erodes the community’s trust.

“We’ve got to free up the immediate administrators, or the supervisors, or the front line supervisors, to untie their hands so that they can swiftly move in and impart discipline that’s necessary to remove officers off the street when certain things occur,” said Neverdon.