ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- A package of law enforcement legislation in Maryland this year prompted by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota includes a proposed repeal of a law that has become common across the country.
Critics say the laws have long stood as a barrier to officer discipline and accountability. Maryland first enacted it in 1974, and about 20 states have adopted similar laws setting due-process procedure for investigating police misconduct, including California, Florida and Texas.
After protests in the aftermath of Floyd's death, police-overhaul advocates now hope the first state to enact the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights will be the first to repeal it, setting a model for other states to improve police accountability. Police union leaders, however, are concerned the changes could erode important law enforcement protections.
From the time of Floyd's May 25 death to the end of 2020, 36 states introduced more than 700 bills addressing police accountability, and nearly 100 have been enacted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Maryland law created procedural protections in disciplinary matters. For example, in 2013, officers accused in complaints were given a 10-day waiting period before the police department could interview them. That was reduced to five days in 2016, after Maryland made some modest steps to change the law in the wake of unrest caused by the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries in police custody.
DeRay Mckesson is a prominent activist and co-founder of a group dedicated to ending police violence called Campaign Zero. Testifying at a recent hearing, he said, "The only effect [of Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Right laws] is that violent use of force increases."
But Clyde Boatwright, the president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, is concerned the proposals will go too far. He expressed the urgency in a November letter in which he warned union members, "we are in the fight of our lives." The union is mounting an aggressive lobbying campaign.
"From the FOP's perspective, the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights gives us a due process right that allows for our police officers to have a fair and impartial investigation and administrative process as relates to an allegation against a police officer," Boatwright said.
Without it, officers could be susceptible to politically influenced decisions by top police officials, Boatwright said. He also expressed concerns about police morale at a time of hiring problems, and he noted the frequency of public calls to police.
"You won't call someone that you didn't think could solve your problem," Boatwright said.
In a state with a Black population of about 30% -- the highest percentage of any state outside the Deep South -- momentum to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Right comes after the state's first Black House speaker convened a panel last year to study police accountability. State House Speaker Adrienne Jones, a Democrat, has put the panel's recommendations into legislation.
The proposal would create a statewide use-of-force statute. It also would require police departments to use body cameras by 2025 and mandate independent investigations of police shootings and other actions that resulted in someone's death or serious injury. Civilians would need to make up at least one-third of police trial boards, and have voting power.
"I am not someone who hates the police, but over the years I've had my own experiences with law enforcement, as have my brothers and my two sons," the speaker testified during a bill hearing.