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Are Police Reform Efforts Doomed to Fail?

As massive corruption scandals continue to plague the Baltimore Police Department, lawmakers and criminal justice advocates are pushing for change–but even their more modest reform proposals fail to gain traction in the state Senate

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Story Transcript

TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Annapolis, Maryland.

With scandals continuing to plague the Baltimore City Police Department and a troubled criminal justice system, advocates have been pushing for change at the state capital again. But will they succeed?

BILAL ALI: It’s one half of the health department budget. What is wrong with us down here in Annapolis?

TAYA GRAHAM: It was a bill that had been debated before, twice. A modest proposal to allow two civilians on police trial boards.

SEN. JOAN CARTER CONWAY: Baltimore City is very unique from other parts of the state, and you can see the types of issues we’re having, especially currently with the police department.

TAYA GRAHAM: Internal disciplinary bodies that mete out punishment for administrative charges.

SEN. NATHANIEL MCFADDEN: The involvement of the civilians, of the citizens of Baltimore City, who pay the bill, should have some say.

TAYA GRAHAM: But like past efforts, this bill looked sure to fail. Part of the problem: Democrat Bobby Zirkin.

SEN. BOBBY ZIRKIN: Without getting into the philosophy of it, it seems that if you got a PBJ for a misdemeanor you would not get a hearing, but if you got convicted of a misdemeanor you would. That seems to make zero sense.

ANDRE DAVIS: For a misdemeanor of more than one year, that is, the authorized sentence is more than one year, then our position is we should treat that as a felony.

TAYA GRAHAM: But the Real News also caught this: A contingent of members of the state’s powerful police union watching the proceedings closely.

GENE RYAN: We’re strongly opposed to it.

TAYA GRAHAM: In fact, we asked Baltimore’s FOP president Gene Ryan what was wrong with civilian input, particularly given the recent scandal involving the Gun Trace Task Force.

STEPHEN JANIS: What do you have to say to the mayor? The mayor said hey, FOP, it’s time. She literally called you out in that hearing. What do you have to say to that?

GENE RYAN: I’ve heard that. It’s a negotiated item. We should be talking about this at the table. I’ll say this. We’re not afraid of civilians on the trial board, but there are certain specifics in training and education that we will demand for that to happen. But we’re not completely opposed to civilians on the trial board.

TAYA GRAHAM: And Zirkin has reasons to listen. Thousands of dollars of donations from the FOP, according to these campaign records. But money is only part of the problem. Across the street, reform is facing obstacles, too.

BILAL ALI: As a member of the black caucus, I am disappointed that we didn’t use our collective power to get the things that we needed for the people that we’re supposed to represent.

TAYA GRAHAM: Including a referendum to let Marylanders vote on legalizing marijuana.

STEPHEN GRAHAM: What do you think? Just talking to the committee, do you think it has a chance of getting out of committee?

KATE BELL: Well, I think if you look at the polling numbers it’s clear how much of the public supports this. Sixty-four percent of likely voters in Maryland are supportive of taxing and regulating marijuana for adult use. So we’re hopeful that, particularly in an election year, that the delegates will follow the will of their constituents.

TAYA GRAHAM: Which, incidentally, the state afforded to voters when the proposal to legalize gambling was put on the ballot.

STEPHEN JANIS: Why can we vote for gambling, but why are they going to block marijuana?

ERIC STERLING: We have suffered, in part, from the fetishizing of law enforcement. We sort of think that cops, because we admire their bravery, must be really intelligent. But in this area they’ve been really stupid. Just four years ago the chief of police of Annapolis came in and testified before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. I was in the room. I was in the room. And he said, the chief of police representing all the chiefs of police, says, I remember 37 people died in Denver the first day marijuana was legalized in 2012. And you’re looking around saying, wait a minute, that didn’t happen.

TAYA GRAHAM: Along with denying voters their say on marijuana, several other police reform proposals face pushback.

STEPHEN JANIS: I mean, the judiciary committee seems to block almost everything. Why is that?

BILAL ALI: The only comment I’m gonna mention about the judiciary – it’s very interesting. I haven’t been able to get any of my bills, that I thought were very progressive, from – Oh, I think I did get one. No, it didn’t come out judiciary. It came out of ways and means. I’m like 0 for 27. If I was a baseball player, I would be – I’d probably be sent back to the minors.

TAYA GRAHAM: Perhaps the only possibility left in Annapolis for change rests with Sen. Bill Ferguson, who wants to empower a state commission to investigate the Baltimore police.

SEN. BILL FERGUSON: And it largely stems from the unbelievably horrific, outrageous testimony that we heard as part of the Gun Trace Task Force hearings that were prosecuted federally a few weeks back, or the conclusion. What came out in that trial was just absolutely unbelievable. It’s my believe that we really have to get to the bottom of that. We have to know who knew what, when did they know it, and that’s the only way that we can move forward.

TAYA GRAHAM: His reason, the revelations during the trial of two of the officers raised questions about the command staff.

STEPHEN GRAHAM: The other jurisdictions do not defer to Baltimore when it comes to their own police department. What has been the feedback from membership you’ve gotten in terms of the possibility of this bill passing?

SEN. BILL FERGUSON: So it’s interesting. Not many people know the history of BPD, and that it became a state agency back in the Civil War. For local issues, generally there’s a fair amount of discretion. Of course, when it comes to Baltimore City there is always skepticism within the legislature from non-Baltimore legislators, and so this is an issue that we’ve continually had to deal with.

On this commission I think there is a general sense that we have to do something. And so I think there is a little bit more interest than generally there would be.

TAYA GRAHAM: Which raises the question: In a purportedly blue state, is reform even possible?

BILAL ALI: We need more passing down here. And quite frankly, anger may not be a bad emotion down here, when you have that many members and you come away with nothing.

TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis, reporting for the Real News Network in Annapolis, Maryland.