PROGRAMMING ALERT: Watch author Jason C. Johnson discuss this topic and more on Monday, April 12 on “Fox New Primetime” at 7 p.m. EDT on Fox News Channel.
Police accountability matters – that’s why Gov. Larry Hogan was right to veto much of Maryland’s so-called ‘police reform’ legislation last week. Unfortunately, the Democratic supermajorities in the state legislature almost immediately overrode his veto and passed this bad bill into law.
As reported by FoxNews.com, Maryland approved the nation’s first Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights in 1974, and about 20 states have adopted similar laws, setting due process procedures for investigating police misconduct. Maryland is the first to repeal the law.
Maryland’s leaders will have to learn the lesson the hard way while other states like California that are considering similar legislation should be wary of its unintended consequences.
This approach to police accountability will make the system far worse, not better, by forcing an unworkable, haphazard discipline system onto police agencies, eliminating leadership’s responsibility for their officers’ conduct, and paralyzing law enforcement’s ability to do their jobs.
Tackling police misconduct requires empowered leadership and due process through full and fair hearings, not the bureaucratic nightmare Annapolis is unleashing on police agencies throughout the state.
The Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR), while recently becoming a source of controversy, never actually impaired police accountability. Police agencies throughout Maryland have, with a high degree of efficiency, disciplined and terminated police officers for misconduct over the decades of the LEOBR’s existence.
While there have been situations in which law enforcement agencies have failed to maintain acceptable levels of discipline and accountability, but these failures are because of administrative failures, poorly negotiated union contracts, or both – not the LEOBR.
Efforts in Annapolis to increase transparency and to boost civilian participation in police discipline outcomes are laudable, but this legislation would establish a byzantine oversight bureaucracy that will very quickly overwhelm the civilian volunteer oversight boards, completely undermining any hope at improving policing.
In fact, civilian-majority or civilian-only review boards are significantly more lenient on accused officers than disciplinary boards composed of fellow officers including commanders and rank-and-file cops. Even in Los Angeles, studies have found that the panels Annapolis proposes dismiss or downgrade charges against accused police at much higher rates than police-led ones.
The agency-level boards that the legislature created will use an all-civilian panel (not necessarily familiar with police conduct rules, state law, or real-life policing practices) who will review the cases and make disciplinary decisions that police chiefs must administer within preordained guidelines.
Police policies are increasingly complex, making it unlikely that these so-called “charging committees” will easily decipher the circumstances in which violations have occurred, without significant technical assistance.
The police in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County (two departments I served) have 2,300 and 1,500 officers respectively and receive hundreds of complaints and misconduct allegations each year.
Though only a relatively small percentage of those investigations uncover policy violations, review, and adjudication of that volume of investigations will consume considerable resources, likely much more than is available on a volunteer basis.
Even a dozen board members for each county cannot fully and fairly review the thousands of hours of body camera footage, documents, witness statements, and laboratory reports necessary to process the volume of complaints in a single monthly or even bi-weekly meeting. It’s not even close.
Such boards would quickly err toward either mass leniency or overbroadly discipline to simply keep their heads above water. Even worse, oversight boards may fail to complete their review within the statutorily required time period. That would demoralize already reeling departments further as officers observed sloppy and unfair discipline processes. Officers can next request a hearing before a trial board, which itself would quickly become overwhelmed by its caseload, as police chiefs will no longer have the authority to resolve even minor cases through negotiation or mediation.
This is because, under Maryland’s new police accountability model, the buck stops with no one. Though imperfect, the current system gives police chiefs and elected sheriffs ultimate disciplinary authority. They are, or at least can be, held accountable for their actions and their responses to the actions of their officers. The legislature allows chiefs to punt their most consequential role, personnel management and discipline, to a committee of civilian volunteers.
The professional, ethical performance of our law enforcement agencies and officers is and should be among the highest priorities of state and local government. To relieve police chiefs and sheriffs of their most important duty – to ensure discipline and adherence to policy by officers – is not a recipe for improvement in law enforcement.
Use of appropriately trained civilians can be very useful to bring external legitimacy to the police discipline process. But outsourcing the entire discipline process presents insurmountable legal and practical challenges in the larger, metropolitan areas.
Those pushing for laws like the one just approved in Maryland earnestly believe that the LEOBR is the problem, but as someone who has overseen a department’s Internal Affairs unit and developed internal training and accountability systems, they miss the mark on how to improve accountability.
Laws like this are a big step in the wrong direction and will make community-police relations much worse where the public is already skeptical of police accountability.
Taking away police officers’ “Bill of Rights” is wrong – on principle and on policy.
Jason Johnson is the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and the former deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department (2016-2018), where he chaired the Performance Review Board. Previously, he serves Prince George’s County Police, commanding the Office of Legal Affairs and the Internal Affairs Division.
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