Police Reforms Moving Toward Senate/House Agreement

A complex package of police reform and accountability proposals appear to be moving toward a resolution in the days ahead.

Among the most widely-watched topics in Annapolis (and in State Houses across the country) this year is legislative reforms to law enforcement oversight. With pressure from multiple stakeholders continuing well after the widespread demonstrations during the summer of 2020, the Maryland General Assembly now appears to have a plan coming together, with multiple bills advancing.

The main bill, HB 670, includes a range of components, including: new guidelines and processes for officer discipline, public access to officer complaints, additional officer hiring and evaluation standards, and changes to liability for taxpayers in misconduct cases.

For broad coverage of the legislation generally, Conduit Street commends the coverage of the media outlets who have meticulously followed (and live tweeted) these weeks of debate. Main updated coverage includes:

House and Senate Move Closer to Sending Cohesive Police Reform Package to Governor, Maryland Matters

Maryland Matters reporter Hannah Gaskill’s twitter feed (covering the full debate, often blow by blow)

Baltimore Sun reporter Pam Wood’s thread on Thursday night’s final Senate floor debate:

Maryland Senate OKs wide-ranging police reform bill, but differences remain with the House, Baltimore Sun

The Likely Path Forward

With just over a week left in the session, and many of the debates on all these bills following closely along party line fissures, the General Assembly leadership may well be looking ahead to a potential veto. Presenting final legislation to the Governor by Monday, April 5, would ensure the legislature enough time to override any vetoes before adjourning their session on April 12. Many stakeholders expect that to be the working timetable for final action on these bills.

The most practical means to effect that end would be: the House votes to approve the Senate amendments to its major reform bill HB 670, and sends back multiple individual bills that were part of the Senate “package” in their identical form. These steps would evade the need for a conference committee to be assembled to negotiate differences between the two chambers, and create a fast track for multiple enrolled bills in the days ahead.

If this is indeed the plan, then the Senate-passed version of HB 670 will be the main pillar of the police reform efforts this session.

Late-developing twist: the House of Delegates on Friday rejected the Senate amendments, and appointed conferees to represent the House in further negotiations. See social media coverage from Sun reporter Bryn Stole:

This action leaves the plan less clear. Presumably the Senate will not appoint its own conferees, and negotiations can commence. The timetable is short to keep any veto/override timetable within the regular session, but the effective dates of the bill may make such considerations less urgent than otherwise assumed.

HB 670 bill information is available on the Maryland General Assembly website, though the bill has not yet been fully reprinted nor the fiscal note updated to reflect the series of Senate amendments, the last of which were adopted late Thursday night, prior to its final Senate passage on a 32-15 vote.

Liability for Local Governments

Amidst a wide range of issues immersed in the intricacies of police discipline, training, and accountability was one over-arching topic affecting county governments and others who support law enforcement agencies — how much further lawsuit exposure would arise from these legislative debates?

The answer, based on the Senate-amended House bill (which now contains elements of other legislation introduced separately): substantially more exposure for police misconduct cases, but less than had been originally proposed, and no “spillover” effect on other sorts of non-police accidents or other matters giving rise to lawsuits.

HB 670, as amended, would increase the amount one person, suing over police misconduct, could receive from $400,000 to $890,000. If more than one person were injured as part of such a claim, the total limit on liability would be half again that amount, or $1,335,000.

In the Senate, multiple amendments were offered both in the Judicial Proceedings Committee and on the floor to alter or limit these exposures, with many Senators expressing concern for the affordability of policing across local governments. One amendment, to strike an automatic escalator provision adopted by the House, was passed — all others were rebuffed.

If the House ultimately concurs with these Senate actions (seemingly likely, despite the potential for the bill to go to a conference committee to resolve differences), this will represent the changes to the liability landscape for law enforcement in Maryland, and counties will be obliged to re-evaluate their own self-insurance funding, or expected insurance premiums, as a result.

 

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties
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