Senate Committee Gears Up For Possible Fight Over Police Accountability Bills

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Will Smith (D-Montgomery) is moving forward with a series of hearings on bills aimed at addressing police misconduct that Republicans claim would hinder law enforcement at a time of near-unprecedented violence in Baltimore City.

“It’s a national conversation that has been inflamed by recent high-profile incidents of police misconduct. And largely within communities of color. The point of these hearings; these are very rare-interim session hearings-very rare-is to put our committee in a position to take quick action once we come back in January,” Smith told in a phone interview on Monday.

Smith added: It’s the beginning of a conversation. Obviously, this is an iterative process. We’ll have three months to work on the legislation that we hear. And we’ll be able to take it up and vote it out early in the session in January.”

Members of the Senate Republican Caucus wrote to Senate President Bill Ferguson (D) on Monday asking that the hearings be canceled.

“It is shocking that with more than 50 people shot in two weeks in Baltimore, 240 individuals shot and killed in Baltimore this year, including 3-year-old Shaniya Gilmore and her pregnant mother, JPR would hold hearings on a suite of 15 bills that would certainly result in less policing. It is equally troubling that, given the incredible and unacceptable carnage in Baltimore, we would exclude legislation modeled after Governor Hogan’s anti-crime package, which the Senate passed 43-4 last Session, from being heard at the same time. It is imperative that we move similar legislation quickly to keep people safe from rising crime. We ask that the Judicial Proceedings Committee cancel what is really nothing more than an anti-police political rally and instead hold hearings on a potential anti-crime package that will save lives in our state by keeping repeat violent offenders who use guns off the street and in prison.”

Smith dismissed the Caucus’ claims.

“This is not an assault on the profession of law enforcement. This is about addressing systemic inequities that have lasted for generations. The purpose of the hearings is not to disparage our law enforcement officers…I have high regard for their profession and for the work that they do keeping us safe. What these hearings are about and what this movement is about is addressing systemic inequities so that the communities that law enforcement officers and agencies serve to feel as though that they have some stake in the game and that they are able to hold those officers that engage in misconduct accountable.”

Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City), who sits on Smith’s committee, called the Caucus’ request to cancel the hearings both “tone-deaf” and “sad.”

Carter elaborated, saying: “Republicans all over the country, including in the U.S. Congress, have embraced the need to reform, and even reimagine policing. Maryland Republicans should embrace this predictive inevitability rather than resist it.”

Carter is sponsoring legislation that would repeal the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.

The virtual hearings are scheduled to be held Tuesday through Thursday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Fifteen bills are on the docket. The bills cover issues related to the use of force, training, public access to officer personnel records, limits on punitive damages. Members of the public who wish to testify may do so by signing up on the General Assembly’s website.