Diane Butler, aunt of Tyrone West, testifies before a sub-committee hearing on law enforcement reform on Nov. 22. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)
Support for body cameras and opposition to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBR) were principal themes at a recent public hearing on law enforcement reform. A number of activists also expressed disappointment in the assembled delegates from Baltimore who had called the hearing, saying they had failed to protect the community from harmful laws during their tenures as legislators.
The hearing was called by the Baltimore City house delegation’s subcommittee on criminal law and justice, held on Nov. 22, and chaired by Del. Jill Carter of the 41st district. For just under three hours, the assembled state representatives from Baltimore, including Dels. Curt Anderson and Frank Conaway, Jr., and Sen. Bill Ferguson, listened to experts on law enforcement, community leaders, activists, citizens and police officers on various topics related to reform.
Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney with the ACLU MD, testified on the LEOBR, calling it one of the most protective law enforcement bill of rights in the country. Kumar said that the protections inhibit meaningful civilian review of police, effective discipline of police officers and real investigations of misconduct.
In a similar vein, Dr. Marvin Cheatham, president of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association, testified about his proposal to strengthen Baltimore’s civilian review board by adding two new members from the ACLU MD and Baltimore NAACP—raising the total number of members to 11—as well as granting the board subpoena power. The civilian review board has been often criticized in the past for its lack of subpoena power, which, especially combined with the protections offered police by the LEOBR, effectively cripples the board’s ability to fully investigate claims of misconduct.
There was broad support by those in the audience for the adoption of body cameras in Baltimore City. Some community members asked questions of the representatives from the Baltimore Police Department present at the hearing about the pace of implementation of a body camera program.
But the main current that seemed to flow throughout the hearing was the community’s frustration with ostensibly progressive lawmakers and organizations. Many people felt that they had not adequately represented or protected members of the community.
“I need a commitment from every legislator in this room that you’re not going to vote for bills in this upcoming session that are going to harm us,” said Kim Trueheart, a well-known community advocate and the director of the Liberty Rec and Tech Center in West Baltimore. “Like you did with the law enforcement bill of rights, like we’ve done with the curfew law here in Baltimore City.”
The crowd made vocal gestures of agreement as Trueheart spoke, and applauded vigorously when she finished. Trueheart would return to the microphone twice more over the course of the event to make the same inquiry of the Baltimore delegation when she felt she had not received an answer.
Duane “Shorty” Davis, another community advocate who is a staple at Baltimore public hearings on law enforcement matters, echoed Trueheart’s sentiment when he asked, “If you ain’t did nothing for us in the last eight years, what are you going to do different for us now?”
Both Anderson and Carter said that the testimony heard at the day’s hearing would help shape future legislation aimed at cutting down police misconduct.
One of the evening’s most emotional moments came when Diane Butler, the aunt that raised Tyrone West, the Baltimore man who was beaten to death by police in July 2013 and whom Butler refers to as her son, asked the Baltimore police officials in attendance about the training and procedures of force which were at the heart of the day’s hearing.
“When was the beating supposed to stop?” asked an emotional Butler. “My son was on the ground screaming for the beating to stop. Was the beating supposed to continue until he was no longer breathing? No longer moving? My son was dead, and your police officer still was kicking him in the back of his head, and he was cuffed.”