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Symbol without Substance: The Problem with Police Accountability “Reforms”

In the national dialogue of police accountability measures, we hear things like banning chokeholds, banning no knock warrants, independent prosecutors and more. These are not bad proposals, but as stand alone policies, keep the current regime of policing in tact. These are minor tweaks that can be sold to the public as sweeping reforms.

Without policies that fundamentally change the institution of law enforcement, these kinds of measures are band-aids on a corrupt system. This week, versions of the previously mentioned policies have been heard, and again, while these policies are not bad, they must be accompanied by policies that shift power over the nature of policing into the hands of the community. Otherwise the legislative action will become symbol, without substance.

Substantive police accountability policy can be determined by asking the questions:

  • Does this policy provide a mechanism for the community control over law enforcement?
  • Does this policy increase the ability for the community to punish officers that harm the community?

These are questions that are centrally concerned with shifting power over law enforcement into the hands of the community. There are three major policies that meaningfully address this frame. One of them is a use of force policy. LBS is a partner with other organizations who have been working on this policy item and we refer you to the work of the ACLU and Amnesty International USA to get the best language for that policy.

LBS has been working most directly on the two other policies:

  • Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA)
    • Currently, the records of internal affairs investigations of police officers are prohibited from being accessible to the public. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the internal affairs investigations of a police officers are personnel records and are not eligible to be disclosed to the public. We believe that the investigatory records related to police misconduct are essential for being able to provide the community with the information that is necessary to effectively hold police accountable.
    • We advocate that the records of internal affairs investigations of police officers are subject to the category of the PIA that makes these records discretionary disclosures, which if withheld upon request, require a stated justification for why keeping the requested information sealed are in the public interest. In other words, we want to have access to all of the investigatory records on police officers so that we can more effectively root out corruption.
  • Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBR)
    • There are a series of protections that exist for law enforcement that impede the ability for the community to have a role in investigation of police misconduct and discipline. Only sworn law enforcement can participate in dispensing discipline and conduct investigations of misconduct.
    • We advocate for a full repeal of the LEOBR. The laws that protect other public sector employees should be sufficient for police officers.

These are policies that will shift power away from the police so that they are not policing themselves. Without shifting this dynamic, the institutional core that allows law enforcement to harm our community without any consequences remains intact.

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