By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
syoes@afro.com

Maryland enacted the first and what proved to be the most comprehensive Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights in the nation in 1974 (LEOBOR). And for many law enforcement reform advocates, those protections provided great cover for countless incidents of egregious police misconduct for decades and in myriad cases cost people their lives.

Almost 50 years later as the nation continues to engage in a titanic struggle for meaningful law enforcement reform perhaps it is appropriate that Maryland took the lead in these efforts in 2021, by dismantling the original LEOBOR.

In overriding the vetoes of Gov. Larry Hogan earlier this month, the Maryland General Assembly in addition to repealing the nation’s first LEOBOR, also voted to constrain use of force by police officers and limit the use of no-knock warrants, amongst other legislative reforms. In the process, many argue the state is setting the pace in implementation of meaningful law enforcement reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the killing of Breonna Taylor and the ever growing list of victims of police misconduct.

“Suffice to say, the journey has been full of untold hardship– for victims of police abuse, their families, and entire communities placed under siege for decades,” said Sen. Jill Carter, who represents the 41st Legislative District of Maryland. Carter was the original sponsor of “Anton’s Law,” named for Anton Black, the 19-year-old Black man who died in police custody on the Eastern Shore in 2018. The measure will essentially remove the veil of secrecy shrouding citizen complaints against police officers and how they are, or aren’t disciplined by law enforcement agencies. Carter, who has been fighting against police misconduct since she entered the General Assembly in 2000, told the AFRO that the journey to vanguard law enforcement reform in the state has been personally difficult.

“It has been painful for me. I was made an outcast in the general assembly merely for advocating for change,” she said. “There are few issues more polarizing than that of state sanctioned violence against Black people at the hands of police. It was easy for legislative leaders to ignore the gravity of the problem and label me, along with victims and protesters, as the problem,” Carter added. “They had the audacity to even charge us with being disrespectful of police when it was them killing us with impunity.”

Dayvon Love, director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, the Black advocacy grassroots think tank, has worked hand in hand with Carter and others for years. And like Carter, he acknowledges that this moment of progress has come at a great cost for many.

“Law enforcement as an institution has been directing racist violence against Black people since its inception,” Love said. “It has engaged in day to day violence that in some cases results in Black people being killed. Others in the Black community are beaten, violated, harassed and a variety of other abuses that are commonplace in the daily lives of Black communities,” he added. Love argues Maryland’s 2021 police reform package is a step in the right direction, but there is still much more work to be done.

“What the legislature did in Maryland was move in a positive direction, but missed the mark on the issue of community oversight and control,” Love said. The legislature granted more community participation in the internal police disciplinary process, but this is different from a community controlled entity that is independent of the police or a state imposed disciplinary process that has the power to fire police officers,” he added. “That is ultimately the power that the community needs to be equipped with in order for racial justice to be a word used to describe any legislative effort regarding policing.” 

Nicole Hanson-Mundell, executive director of Out for Justice, which advocates for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, did not directly work on law enforcement reform in 2021. However, she has worked directly with Carter, Love and others on interconnected criminal justice issues.

“It was only fitting that the state that initiated the failed policy known as the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights was the first state to eliminate such a grossly inadequate policy that has for too long protected those within the ranks of law enforcement, who have sought to do irreparable harm to Black and Brown citizens across this country,” Hanson-Mundell told the AFRO.

“The passage of the police reform package was a huge victory for the freedom fighters, such as Senator Jill Carter and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and Jonathan Hutto (a law enforcement reform organizer in Prince George’s County), to name a few, who have championed this work for over a decade now.”

The ACLU of Maryland has engaged in the law enforcement reform struggle for decades. Yanet Amanuel, the group’s public policy advocate worked closely with the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Police Accountability to push for some of the groundbreaking legislation of the 2021 session.

“While several bills came up short, some progress was made and that progress is attributable to the relentlessness of these families and their refusal to settle for symbolic measures and all of the community and advocacy groups that rallied from all across the state and answered the call to action in the wake of the national uprising,” Amanuel said. “So, while we are thrilled that the legislature did take a step in the right direction with police reform this session we will have a lot of work to do. Our coalition is proud of the work we have done to maximize the opportunity to pass meaningful legislation and our power comes from the people in the community who used their voice to advocate for justice, especially survivors of police abuse.”

Despite the landmark legislative victories it seems clear law enforcement advocates are focused on the work that still remains to be done going forward.

“This year I found myself in an altered universe where some of the very legislators that colluded in the dismissal of these issues, and treated me as having no right to legislate suddenly became champions of police reform,” Carter said.

“We should all be thankful they came around but mindful it was late. Had these measures been passed years ago, we would have saved hundreds of Marylanders’ lives, improved the institution of policing, and gained public trust of police long ago. And this is the very foundation of public safety.”

 

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor