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Opinions | Maryland’s piecemeal approach to police reform doesn’t work

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/5/2020 Kisha A. Brown

Kisha A. Brown is the founder of Justis Connection, the only online legal referral service exclusively promoting Black lawyers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

Over my tenure as director of the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement, I saw firsthand how some police officers terrorize, without recourse, everyday people whom they are mandated to serve and protect.

I started my tenure with the city a month or so before the Freddie Gray uprising and inherited a mostly defunct office that housed the Civilian Review Board, the only police oversight authority in the city.

Public complaints came from people in all walks of life, and they mostly were from Black people: A college student put in lockup overnight after attempting to video his friend’s arrest, and the video was erased from his phone when it was returned. A woman who witnessed from her window a police officer beating her neighbor. A woman who had an officer threaten to plant drugs on her during a 1 a.m. unannounced visit to her apartment. An older woman who had an officer show up at her door telling her she better not pursue her complaint against him because he knew where she lived.

There were so many stories that it was almost unbearable to imagine the level of terror that so many Black families endured, not knowing if the passing officer would be the disrupter of their day and possibly their life.

And the brutality was not limited to the Baltimore borders. A prominent Black businessman told me that as a child in Baltimore County, he witnessed what appeared to be potentially criminal activity by police officers. A well-respected Prince George’s County lawyer warned me that a new Baltimore City police leader from the county had so many skeletons of misconduct that he couldn’t advance locally.

Although we should start by considering completely dismantling the police, if that fails, we should definitely look at ways to defund them. It is inconceivable how a police department, with a relatively low crime-clearance rate and notoriously large number of complaints, commands one-third of the total city budget. In my first year, by the time we were halfway through the fiscal year, all agency directors received notification to halt spending because the police had overspent its $500 million budget. So you can imagine I was happy to hear that state legislators formed a police reform work group and conducted hearings to review proposed police reform bills. Change is long overdue.

For starters, we should foster units that are populated with social workers and community leaders for intervention and de-escalation calls. There needs to be better oversight of police activity. We need to take it much more seriously when a person comes forward with a complaint, risking his or her own safety, to expose wrongdoing by the police. The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights has no place in our state. It is a hindrance to honorable police officers by protecting bad actors, and it has too long shielded those bad officers. Our municipalities do not need armored tanks. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and sets the stage for military-style engagement with a civilian population.

Let it be clear. You are not a good officer if you stand by and watch your colleague harass, bully, assault or do anything in violation of policy or law. I support requiring an officer to intervene and report misconduct. Furthermore, state prosecutors should have the authority to investigate allegations of police misconduct. There is a precedent from when I was director of legislative affairs under Attorney General Doug Gansler. Legislation I wrote became law that empowered the state prosecutor to investigate voter intimidation and impropriety as a civil rights violation. This came in response to requests from a local NAACP chapter experiencing voter manipulation and intimidation tactics on the Eastern Shore.

Police reform can no longer happen in piecemeal fashion in which we make small steps over the course of many years. Marylanders are rising up to demand better of their public servants, and we expect to see real progress from the 2021 legislative session.

Read more:

Letter: Maryland is dropping the ball on police reform

Christy E. Lopez: Defund the police? Here’s what that really means.

Paul Waldman: The public is ready for police reform, even if Congress may not be

Will Ruger and Will Smith: Maryland should take these next steps on criminal-justice reform

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Marchers in Baltimore on June 1, during a protest over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.The sign lists the names of African Americans killed. © Lauren Lumpkin/TWP Marchers in Baltimore on June 1, during a protest over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.The sign lists the names of African Americans killed.
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