State Senator Jill P. Carter will continue her fight to repeal laws that grand Maryland police officers special protections. (Courtesy photo)

By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham
Special to the AFRO

During a break from a round of intense hearings in 2015 before the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis, State Senator Jill P. Carter recalls an emotional moment still vivid in her mind.

Advocates for police reform had packed the committee hearing room, calling for legislators to enact police reform sooner rather than later she recalls. But she knew based upon how her fellow lawmakers had beaten back reform proposals in the past, the bills would go nowhere. 

“There were mothers pleading for the humanity of their children,” Carter recalled. “Mothers whose sons had been killed by police.” 

When a reporter asked Carter a question, she was overcome with emotion.  

“Honestly, I broke down,” Carter remembered. “I was just overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment, the pleas of the people asking simply that they not be brutalized anymore,” she added.  

Soon thereafter, as is often the case in Annapolis, much of the proposed reforms were either voted down or didn’t make it to the floor for a vote.  

Such has been the long and torturous path for the state’s foremost pioneer when it comes to police reform legislation. Carter’s tenure as both a delegate and now senator has been marked by a succession of police reform bills going back almost 15 years. However, much like 2015 during that time, almost none have even garnered a vote. The sole exception being Christopher’s law passed in 2013 that required sensitivity and use of force training for all Maryland law enforcement officers. Which is why Carter plans to make the 2021 session beginning in January different.  

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has managed to do something that even the turmoil following the death of Freddie Gray did not: motivate a state capital awash in police union money to act.  

For Carter, that means first and foremost repealing the law that she believes is at the heart of Maryland’s inability to reign in police: the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights which grants police officers special protections that many say has hampered reform efforts.   

“I believe we have to start with a full repeal of the LEOBR,” she told the {AFRO.}  “Police officers should not have special rights; they should have the same rights as the people they serve.”

But that’s just the beginning because along with the LEOBR legislation, Carter has several other bills aimed at making police more accountable by eliminating loopholes that protect them from public scrutiny. One of those bills, the Police Accountability and Transparency Act, would bar police disciplinary records from being exempt under the state’s public information laws. 

Carter also has pending proposals that would ban chokeholds as well as require police officers to report wrongdoing and when they witness brutality by a colleague, they should intervene.  

But the reality remains that even in a year that seems ripe for change, police still hold sway and due to the laws like the LEOBR, it is almost impossible to fire them.  

Case in point are two officers convicted of crimes who remained on the city payroll long after their cases were adjudicated.  

Officer Richard Pinheiro Jr. was caught on his own body camera planting drugs on an innocent suspect. He was convicted in November of 2018 for fabricating evidence. However, according to the city’s employee database, he was paid a $45,000 salary through fiscal year 2020. He resigned from the department in June 2020. 

Likewise, for Daniel Nicholson, a high-profile homicide detective was convicted of assaulting a North Baltimore pizza employee in December of 2018.  According to payroll records he earned $96,000 in fiscal year 2020.  

The post-conviction employment is in part due to LEBOR which Carter wants to change. The law prevents an officer from being fired before a trial board hearing. Because the BPD generally holds trial boards after a criminal case has concluded, even an officer who is convicted of a crime can linger on the force for several years as the internal investigation proceeds.

Even the police department wants to change the process. In a letter sent by BPD’s top lawyer Kristin E. Blumer, the command staff has no power to fire officers convicted of crimes. 

“When an officer has been convicted of a misdemeanor, or received probation before judgment for any crime, the officer may still elect a hearing prior to the imposition of discipline, which results in officers remaining on BPD payroll even after criminal sentencing.”

Which is why Carter says she plans to push for comprehensive reform this year, regardless of the obstacles she faced in the past. 

“If we had enacted this legislation over a decade ago when I first proposed it, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are now,” Carter said.  “Police have to be held accountable like everyone else.”