On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Over the summer, residents around the region protested police brutality and racial inequality. After the deaths of Black people at the hands of police — including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — protesters have been asking for a wide range of changes to their local police departments, including defunding the police and restoring control of police to citizens.
Now, lawmakers in Maryland are beginning to draft and debate police reform legislation. Maryland’s Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee held special hearings last week to get started on discussing policing bills, and legislators agreed that police reform is “on the table.”
Are these changes what activists and protesters were looking for? And how do officers feel about these new bills?
Produced by Richard Cunningham
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. In response to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, millions of Americans have taken to the streets demanding police accountability and racial equity. Like many local jurisdictions, now Maryland's legislature is debating over a dozen different bills related to police reform and accountability. Yanet Amanuel is a public policy advocate at the ACLU of Maryland. Yanet, thank you for joining us.
YANET AMANUELThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd John Nesky is the chief of police at the Bowie Police Department. Chief Nesky, thank you for joining us.
JOHN NESKYThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJohn Nesky, what was your reaction to George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, and what has it meant for your police officers in Bowie?
NESKYWell, I think my reaction was much the same as everyone else's, just an absolute gut punch. It was very disturbing, very shocking and so outside the realm of actual policing, that it was shocking. I was very upset by it. I was very disgusted by it, and as were my officers. And I think as the profession, was as a whole. So, I know it spurred a lot of conversations within our department, officer-to-officer, supervisor-to-officer, supervisor-to-supervisor.
NESKYOne of the things that you really have to do when something like this happens is to make sure that we do have those conversations, to make sure that we, as a culture, believe the same things and believe about the fair treatment of others, and that we follow that by practice. One of the things, again, you have to take those opportunities of tragedy to make sure that you reaffirm what we're supposed to be doing and what we are supposed to stand for.
NNAMDIAnd yesterday, John Nesky, Prince George's County announced a $20 million settlement with the family of a man, William Green, who was shot six times in the back of a cruiser while handcuffed. What is your response to this tragic event and, well, what is the county police doing to make sure something like this doesn't happen again?
NESKYWell, I can't speak for another department, but I know, looking at it again, you look at something this -- this was absolutely outside the realm of anything that we thought would've been possible in our profession. The settlement, you know, is -- it's a gesture -- you know, I don't mean to be callous, but, again, someone lost a loved one needlessly.
NESKYNow, we know that in the policing business there are encounters that end in violence or death. We try to avoid those, but these kind of things like Mr. Floyd and Mr. Green are just such an aberration that doesn't stand up to any kind of protocol or logic. It really just baffles us sometimes.
NNAMDIHannah Gaskill, the Maryland Senate judicial proceedings committee held special hearings on police reform legislation last week. What's being discussed?
HANNAH GASKILLRight. So, there are 15 bills on the table all of which seem to be intended to be workshopped so that they can be in a good place to be heard or to be pushed through or, you know, legislated when the session starts, should that be a special session or the January 2021 session. So, there are 15 bills on the table, all sponsored by three different senators, including Judicial Proceedings Chairman Will Smith, Senator Jill Carter out of Baltimore City, and Senator Charles Sydnor out of Baltimore County.
HANNAH GASKILLThe bills include a number of different measures, including creating a use-of-force standard, the creation of a police misconduct database, public access to body camera footage, and the repeal or reform of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, among other things.
NNAMDIYanet Amanuel, what would the ACLU like to see as far as police reform in Maryland?
AMANUELWell, we've been working with a collision comprise of over 85 organizations and directly impacted experts to push five demands that are only the beginning steps to address all the ways in which policing in Maryland is terrorizing black and brown communities, which starts by first shifting power over law enforcement into the hands of the community and ending the practice of police policing themselves.
AMANUELSo -- and because despite repeated efforts, the legislator in Maryland has failed to take meaningful steps. And so, we're really a long way from the finish line. What we need to know is, this time, will they actually do something that will make a real difference.
AMANUELAnd so, the five demands that we have are repealing, in its entirety, the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, revising the Maryland Public Information Act to make records of police internal investigations and misconduct records transparent so that we can hold police departments accountable of how they police their own. Create statutory limits on use of force, because Maryland is one of only nine states without a statewide use-of-force law. Getting police out of our schools and giving Baltimore City control of its police department.
NNAMDIThose are the five demands that your organization's making.
AMANUELYes, alongside 85 other organizations.
NNAMDIOkay. Chief Nesky, what does police accountability look like now in Bowie, and where do state laws come into this?
NESKYWell, as was stated, state laws and LEOBR, and that is a -- that's a big one, and we understand, as a profession, that it's time to look at that seriously and see if it can survive being fixed or if it needs to be repealed and replaced. One of the things that, if you look at specifically the LEOBR, when it was first created...
NNAMDII should tell our listeners that's the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.
NESKYI'm sorry. Yes, the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. And I say that LEOBR, the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Right is a lot like pineapple on pizza. It evokes very strong emotions on either side of the equation. So -- but the thing about it is when it was first created, it was created to give a uniform process throughout the state when disciplinary actions are taken in administrative, not criminal, but in administrative proceedings against an officer.
NESKYWell, through the years and through different bargaining agreements with unions, that's kind of got a little convoluted, and it's not as uniform as it needs to be across the state. And, again, that's nothing -- that's not anti-union speak. It's just the way things played out, and unions have their needs and their roles. But we need to -- if it does get repealed or, you know, if we can replace it with something, there are some things that do work in that document.
NESKYSo, you know, things like we can duress an officer and force them to give us an administrative statement. Other public -- or other employees in the government, we cannot make them -- if I have a civilian employee, I can't duress them and force them to give me a statement about something that happened.
NESKYIt's the same thing with a controlling part time -- I can control and reasonably control secondary deployment for my officers. You don't see that in any other profession. You don't have an insurance agent who, you know, that insurance agent gets to decide what they do at night. You know, it is secondary employment.
NESKYSo, there are some good things. There's some things that are helpful to management that need to be, you know, put into place or kept, where possible. But, again, one of the things that you're going to -- we find that we are ready to sit down to the table. We realize there needs to be change. We realize there needs to be some reform and some movement. We just want to make sure that we don't lose managerial powers to allow us to discipline our officers.
NESKYNow, what it looks like specifically in Bowie, I'll be very quick to give others some time to speak. We, of course, fall under the LEOBR, the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which is a due process. But we also have some other things in place, as far as reviewing body camera footage of every use-of-force incident that occurs. Going through an executive review of every use-of-force incident that occurs to make sure that policy was followed. And is there any possible training aspects that can be addressed that may lessen the need for that force, or was there something that the office could've done better, or did they perform perfectly, you know, as we hope they do but sometimes, you know, doesn't always occur.
NNAMDIYanet Amanuel, the ACLU of Maryland is calling for the repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. What would repealing it do, in your view?
AMANUELWell, I'd have to first disagree with what the intent was when it was originally introduced. And we have to understand that. In its inception, policing, since the 19th century, where white people were recruited to track down and catch enslaved people, until now, when police disproportionately track and killed black people. And America's policing system's roots were birthed and are still grounded in white supremacy.
AMANUELAnd so, we have our George Floyds and Breonna Taylors right here in Maryland. That's Emanuel Oates Anton Black, Leonard Shand, William Green, Tyrone West, Christopher Brown, Gary Hopkins, Jr., Robert White, Finan Berhe, Freddie Gray and too many more to name on this call. And so, we believe that the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights creates special rights that range from expungement to disciplinary records that limits what police can be -- what discipline can be imposed for certain fractions.
AMANUELLEOBR also shields officers from discipline by saying that they can only be disciplined after a mini trial is conducted with fellow officers as the judges, no matter how egregious the conduct or how clear the evidence, unless they are convicted of a felony. And it's the same way to run a workplace. It's no accident that the only workplace that we run this way are the ones that have the most dramatic, disproportionate and deadly affects on black and Latinx people.
AMANUELThese are special rights that no other public employee in the state of Maryland has, and they're certainly not required by the Constitution. A bill of rights is meant to protect people from the government, not the police from accountability from the people, which is precisely why law enforcement officers have -- because law enforcement officers have so much power over people that they serve, to kill and deprive them of their civil liberty that we cannot shield them from discipline.
AMANUELAnd it is why we're asking that the LEOBR is repealed, because officers would have -- and if it is repealed, officers will have the same employment rights as any other state or local government employee. If we only reform LEOBR, it still leaves the basic structure in its place. And that's why we're asking for a full repeal.
NNAMDIHannah Gaskill, both Chief Nesky and Yanet Amanuel have talked about the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. But as a reporter, you know that Maryland and Virginia are two of 16 states with that law on the books. So, what is it, and what does it do?
GASKILLRight. In short, it provides due process protections for law enforcement officers during misconduct investigations, and it ensures that there's a uniform process across all 148 of the state's law enforcement agencies. Currently, it gives officers facing allegations five days between the time that a complaint is filed and the time that they're able to be interrogated. And this time is meant to secure them -- or meant to allow them to secure legal representation.
GASKILLAnd if, after being investigated, officers have found -- or were found to be charged, they have the right to appear before a hearing board, which is mostly comprised of other law enforcement officers. And this board looks at the facts and determines whether the charges should stick. And if they do, the board recommends a penalty to the police chief or sheriff, who ultimately determines the punishment.
NNAMDIHere's Marlene in Silver Spring, Maryland. Marlene, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARLENEThank you for taking my call. I just wondered how the guests feel about the prospect of shifting the financial responsibility away from local jurisdictions and their city and state budgets. For example, when there's a settlement involved because of police wrongdoing, it is not the police department itself which has to pay out. It is the local jurisdictions, etcetera. So, how do your guests feel about making that change, so that the police department itself becomes directly financially accountable for any wrongdoing?
NNAMDII'll ask that question both to John Nesky and to Yanet Amanuel. First you, Yanet Amanuel.
AMANUELWell, I would say what happened in Prince George's County just yesterday with announcement of the William Green settlement is a perfect example of the acknowledgement of the massive harm that the police officer did to Mr. Green's family. But I would say, you know, that would be a great addition to shifting power to the community because we still need oversight over what's happening to begin with to even, you know, hold these officers accountable. And if they're policing themselves, we can't do that.
AMANUELAnd I also have to mention that we don't have currently access to people misconduct records. So, even if you filed a complaint yourself, the only thing you can find out is the disposition, not how it was handled or investigated. It's really just a bunch of secrecy. And so, we need to have -- and the majority of misconduct records filed against police officers are unsustained. And so, we need community oversight and control in addition to what you're proposing, but I don’t think it will solve all the problems.
NNAMDI(overlapping) When you say in addition to what you're proposing, Marlene is proposing specifically that the taxpayers do not end up with the bill of $20 million, and that it should be deducted from the Prince George's County Police Department's budget. Do you agree with that?
AMANUELI do agree.
NNAMDIOkay. And how about you, Chief Nesky?
NESKYI can see where it's attractive, in principle, I really do. And I understand the reasoning behind it. But if you look at it just purely from a fiscal point of view, it becomes almost unsustainable. It's the same thing if your public works truck has an accident and then the budget -- that fine or any kind of settlement comes straight out of that public work's budget.
NESKYBudgets are not meant to sustain those kinds of, you know, settlements or things that don't happen every day. That's why it's important that, you know, we are held accountable financially, or wherever the damages are. But if you look at it from just a purely realistic way, there's absolutely no way that police departments or sheriff's departments would be able to sustain that kind of fund balance. And, in the end, it always does come back to the taxpayer, because that's where the police funds get their funding from.
NESKYIt's another way to look at it, you know. I look at every dollar I spend as it's not my money, it's the taxpayers' money. This settlement is going to come from a taxpayer's dollar or a taxpayer's wallet. There are insurance companies legit for local governments that help overwrite these settlements. So, if we take and we start to change that, you're going to jeopardize the functionality of local government.
NNAMDIHere is Joe in -- well, we got a Tweet from Josh, who says: Yesterday I thanked a random cop on the street for being a policeman in D.C., as I fear we are getting in a bad place in which regular officers are demonized and persecuted while bad officers are still overprotected. Here now is Joe in Bowie. Joe, your turn.
JOEYeah, well, literally following up on that, two-part question. One is, I'd like to know the statistics, that is this problem worse than it was 10 or 20 years ago? I actually know the answer. The answer is no, it's not. It's actually getting better than it was 20 years ago. My main problem with these reforms is in line with what your prior commentator says on his text, is that we've got this completely upside down.
JOEWe are close to seeing 14, 15 deaths, tragic deaths per year in the entire country. And we're revitalizing our police systems and we're passing these absurd regulations that just make it harder for police, when the real threat to people, whatever color you are, whatever demographic you come from, particularly here in our -- you know, in my African-American community, is that our biggest threat is from other criminals. It is not from the police. It is not from the police. It is not from the police.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, you said it three times. Allow me to have Yanet Amanuel respond. Yanet Amanuel?
AMANUELWell, first, I think you might be speaking from a place of privilege, because if you ask an African American person that question, they might have a completely different answer to that. And it's not -- it's more than just 15 or 14 deaths a year. In Maryland alone, we've had 138 in the last four or five years. And, to you, it might be one life, but one life is one too many. And so, we need to address these problems.
AMANUELAnd when you talk about crime, the reason why we can’t even solve crime, for example, in Baltimore City, is because there's no trust between the community and police. And so how do you expect the community to trust the officers who are harming the people in their community, and even willing to work or even talk to them when we're not -- we're going without addressing these issues? And so, these problems that we're discussing have been going on since the beginning of time, when policing was first created. So, it's -- to just -- you cannot just undermine it as just a couple deaths a year. It's a lot more than that.
NNAMDIOkay. John Nesky, protestors across the region have been calling for a reduction in the power of police unions. You mentioned police unions. What role do police unions play, and do you feel they have too much power?
NESKYI won't say they have too much power. Sometimes they can be a little too much into LEOBR. And, again, it creates that unwieldy system that takes away some managerial rights from the chief or sheriff, whose duty and job is to hold their people accountable. Unions have a role. They really do. They have a very specific role, and that's to look out for the being and welfare of their officers.
NESKYSometimes management and unions are on the same page, and sometimes we disagree about how things are handled and about how guidelines should be implemented. But they do still serve a role. I'm not sure they always serve a role in the disciplinary process, at least from my point of view, but they still have a role in the job.
NNAMDIHannah Gaskill, Maryland is only one of nine states that does not have a use-of-force standard. What is a use-of-force standard, and what happens without it?
GASKILLRight. So, a use-of-force standard just establishes what is and is not reasonable for officers when they find themselves in a situation where they feel that they need to use force. And the reform proposed by Senator Carter last week would create a uniform policy across the state. So, right now, kind of each jurisdiction has their own varying use-of-force standard. So, you could drive from Anne Arundel County to Baltimore City and have two different police agencies with two different ideas of what is and isn't reasonable.
NNAMDIJohn Nesky, does the Bowie Police Department have its own use-of-force rules?
NESKYWe have a use-of-force policy. It is in line with best practices across the nation. We are seeking CALEA certification, so everything gets reviewed. One of the things that the police and sheriffs are for and one of the main things -- there's a lot more common ground than we're kind of discussing here. A lot of it is, you know, the devil's in the details, but I think a lot of the -- some of the core principles, we do agree on.
NESKYAnd we're -- you know, one of the things is that a use-of-force standard across the state would be helpful. And, again, it's one of the things that -- what's it going to look like, and how it's going to be enforced. And those are some of the things that we need to look at. But, you know, when you look at the majority of the departments, a lot of them have the same tenets that they want to put into that use-of-force standard for the state.
NNAMDIYanet Amanuel, there's also a push to further classify and limit unlawful or deadly force. What do you believe unlawful or deadly force looks like, and how should that be addressed in legislation?
AMANUELSo, we are working with Senator Carter to strengthen the bill. And we believe a good use-of-force policy should have clear definitions of lethal and non-lethal force. Countries around the world do this, and it works. Officers may use lethal force only as a last resort after first exhausting reasonable alternatives, and only when it's necessary to protect officers or the public from death or serious injury.
AMANUELAnd officers may use less-than-lethal force when it is necessary and proportionate to the goal. In addition, determining whether an officer's use of force is justified requires looking at the totality of circumstances around the use of force, including whether the officer used de-escalation techniques, whether the officer's actions increase the need of use of force to begin with. And the bill is also going to include the language around officers must warn, attempt to deescalate and intervene with other officers who are using excessive force.
AMANUELAs in the case we saw with Leonard Shand, when officers shot him after they escalated, mind you, 44 times, after they escalated the situation by throwing a flashbang grenade, the goal of the police should've been to resolve the situation safely for all of those that are involved, not make it worse.
AMANUELAnd our bill's also going to look to implement new regulations around specific officer behavior, including, but not limited to discharge of a firearm and a taser, chokeholds, shooting with a less lethal launcher, and strikes by fist to hard object.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. We'll be following, of course, the process of this legislation as it takes place in the Maryland state legislature. I'd like to thank our guests. John Nesky is chief of police of the Bowie Police Department. John Nesky, thank you for joining us.
NESKYThank you, sir.
NNAMDIYanet Amanuel is a public policy advocate at the ACLU of Maryland. Yanet Amanuel, thank you for joining us.
AMANUELThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Hannah Gaskill is a reporter at Maryland Matters. Hannah, thank you for joining us.
GASKILLThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIThis segment on police reform in Maryland was produced by Richard Cunningham. And our conversation about race and gender in the local skateboarding scene was produced by Cydney Grannan.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, they were cooks, musicians, ministers, teachers -- they were spouses, parents, grandparents, and they were ours. More than 7,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the Washington region. We'll hear from their friends and families about coping with loss at a time when the most basic grieving rituals are disrupted. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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