Handcuffing police chiefs Fox guarding henhouse?: House bill ignores public stake in misconduct reviews.

March 21, 1997

SUPPORTERS OF House Bill 1172, which would reduce Maryland's police chiefs' power to clean up allegations of police misconduct, contend their proposal is about fairness to officers. But they can't make a case about fairness to the public, whom the police officers serve.

This is a union-written and sponsored bill, supported by the Fraternal Order of Police, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and other labor groups. It would dismantle the current checks and balances in police discipline review. Currently, when an officer is charged with misconduct, the chief must convene a hearing board of three members. One must be the same rank as the officer being investigated. The board's decision on guilt or innocence is binding, but its recommended penalty can be adjusted by the chief.

Under the bill the hearing board's penalty would be binding, or perhaps subject it to binding arbitration. Opponents of the legislation, including the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and Sheriffs Association, the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League, contend that if police brutality was videotaped -- such as the Rodney King case -- a chief would be powerless to fire those involved if a hearing board decreed a lesser penalty, or none at all.

The public, by and large, trusts its police, and should. But several cases of misconduct last year -- from police scalping tickets at Camden Yards to sexual crimes -- should give legislators pause. Also, a study of racial disparity in discipline within the Baltimore City police department concluded that while black officers typically serve on boards that review cases involving black officers, white officers often lead these boards. If these boards are made all-powerful, city or county councils might as well not bother calling police chiefs on the carpet to explain apparent injustices. The same goes for the legislature. This bill would affect jurisdictions whose police have collective bargaining, including the State Police, Baltimore City, the large counties and some towns.

Police officers, indeed, have an enormous stake in how internal discipline is meted out. H.B. 1172 ignores the public's stake.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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