Maryland lawmakers first took a stab at police reform in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, but they failed to muster enough votes to pass the legislation despite massive protests by Baltimore’s Black community.
Yet the murder of another African American man, George Floyd, five years later and 1,100 miles away, achieved what Gray’s could not. In April of 2021—just days before a Hennepin County jury convicted former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin of Floyd’s murder—Maryland’s Democratically controlled legislature overrode a veto by the Republican governor to become the first state in the nation to repeal its Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
Widely hailed as the nation’s most sweeping statewide overhaul of law enforcement policies, Maryland’s law mandates police use of body cameras, extends to civilians a role in disciplining officers, restricts the use of no-knock warrants, and allows public scrutiny of officers’ personnel records in some cases.
The hope—openly expressed at the time by a broad range of African American activists, journalists and politicians—was that Maryland’s legislation augured a new day for American justice.
Said Adrienne A. Jones, speaker of the House of Representatives and a sponsor of the bill, “Maryland is leading the nation in transforming our broken policing system.”
As the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder approaches, however, the police reform movement has stalled and the momentum from a year ago has ground to a screeching halt.
While state lawmakers in Washington have banned police chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and California has created a statewide certification system to prevent police officers fired by one agency from simply catching on at another, police reform at the state level has largely been limited to strengthening regulations for police deployment of body cameras.
Still, those modest statehouse measures exceed efforts to overhaul policing at the federal level, where President Joe Biden has all but abandoned his administration’s push to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would’ve ended the longstanding practice of “qualified immunity” protecting police officers from most civil lawsuits.
His 2022 federal budget proposes nearly $2 billion in federal funding for law enforcement above the 2021 funding levels, and in his State of the Union address in March he said, “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police.”
The line received the loudest applause from the audience, evoking comparisons to a Ku Klux Klan meeting by many African Americans posting on social media, and signaling to others that Blacks have largely squandered their best opportunity since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to effect meaningful police reform.
“I think that we have made some progress, but the problem is we get complacent and the minute that things look like they’re starting to change we relax,” Barrington Salmon, a 64-year-old African American journalist who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, told the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.
He said, “Anybody who was even remotely cognizant of American history should’ve been prepared for the White backlash, and I don’t think we were. One of the things that the activists didn’t do is to continue to articulate what exactly they mean by ‘defund the police.’
“They needed to be more specific and to keep on saying that we need to reinvest that money in medical care, social workers, money for housing, doing welfare checks, and that type of stuff. And they needed to keep on saying it…drumming it into people’s brains until it pierced these negative narratives.”
Ron Williams, who describes himself as an African American baby boomer from Los Angeles, told MSR that effective police reform should begin with electoral politics aimed at disciplining the Democratic Party. “I think we as Black people and progressives as a whole should explicitly boycott all centrist candidates so the Dems get the message we are not playing!”
Salmon agrees that the Democrats are the problem. “We can’t depend on people like Biden to do the right thing… The Dems basically used Black people and then threw us away like they always do.”
Salmon said the answer to police brutality in the Black community lies in direct action such as that demonstrated during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “Africans in this country keep on expecting legislation to change things, but you can’t legislate morality.
“One solution is mutual aid societies and organizations like the Black Panthers and the Deacons for Defense. We as African Americans have to change the way that we think. We gotta change the way that we act.”
Mark K. Spencer, inspector general for the Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Department in Maryland, said that the police reform legislation passed in 2021 is flawed. It continues to rely on the police to police themselves; civilian review boards are political appointees; there are mechanical issues with reporting requirements.
Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction, largely because it provides for greater transparency in policing. Spencer, a former prosecutor in the Washington, D.C. suburb, was disappointed that more states didn’t follow Maryland’s lead.
But it’s not a panacea, he warned, and the larger problem, ultimately, is one of culture. “Too much of American policing has been influenced by White Supremacy, and even more dangerously, the idea that police violence is, and was, a legitimate tool for maintaining order in communities.
“But you don’t change police culture by passing a statute,” said Spencer. “You change police culture from the ground up through training and supervision. You change police culture by hiring the right people.”
Jon Jeter is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, who has also served stints at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Washington Post, among others.