ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Every Wednesday, for 395 weeks, Tawanda Jones has held a vigil to protest the death of her brother, Tyrone West, who died after a struggle with Baltimore police in 2013.
Jones' protests used to take place on the streets of Baltimore, but since the pandemic, she has moved her activism online, where she recently waited late into the night to testify in support of an effort to create greater police accountability in Maryland.
Jones hopes the time has come to repeal the state’s Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights — police protections in state law she says have shielded authorities from responsibility, including the officers who she believes suffocated her brother.
“I call it a security blanket for them that allows them to brutalize us," said Jones, a school teacher.
A package of police reforms in Maryland this year prompted by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota includes a proposed repeal of a law that has become common across the country. Critics say the laws have long stood as a barrier to officer discipline and accountability. Maryland first enacted it in 1974, and about 20 states have adopted similar laws setting due process procedure for investigating police misconduct, including California, Florida and Texas.
After protests in the aftermath of Floyd's death, police reform advocates now hope the first state to enact the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights will be the first to repeal it, setting a model for other states to improve police accountability. Police union leaders, however, are concerned the changes could erode important law enforcement protections.
From the time of Floyd’s May 25th death to the end of 2020, 36 states introduced more than 700 bills addressing police accountability, and nearly 100 have been enacted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Maryland law created procedural protections in disciplinary matters. For example, in 2013, the year of West's death, officers accused in complaints were given a 10-day waiting period before the police department could interview them. That was reduced to five days in 2016, after Maryland made some modest steps to reform the law in the wake of unrest caused by the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries in police custody.
DeRay Mckesson is a prominent activist and co-founder of a group dedicated to ending police violence called Campaign Zero. Testifying at a recent hearing, he said, “The only effect (of LEOBR laws) is that violent use of force increases."
But Clyde Boatwright, the president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, is concerned the proposals will go too far. He expressed the urgency in a November letter in which he warned union members, “we are in the fight of our lives." The union is mounting an aggressive lobbying campaign.
“From the FOP‘s perspective, the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights gives us a due process right that allows for our police officers to have a fair and impartial investigation and administrative process as relates to an allegation against a police officer," Boatwright said.
Without it, officers could be susceptible to politically influenced decisions by top police officials, Boatwright said. He also expressed concerns about police morale at a time of hiring problems, and he noted the frequency of public calls to police.
“You won’t call someone that you didn’t think could solve your problem,” Boatwright said.
In a state with a Black population of about 30% — the highest percentage of any state outside of the Deep South — momentum to repeal the LEOBR comes after the state’s first Black House speaker convened a panel last year to study police accountability. House Speaker Adrienne Jones, a Democrat, has put the panel's recommendations into legislation.
The proposal would create a statewide use-of-force statute. It would also require police departments to use body cameras by 2025 and mandate independent investigations of officer-involved shootings and other actions that resulted in someone’s death or serious injury. Civilians would also need to make up at least one-third of police trial boards, and have voting power.
“I am not someone who hates the police, but over the years I’ve had my own experiences with law enforcement, as have my brothers and my two sons," the speaker testified during a bill hearing.
There also are a variety of separate police accountability measures.
One measure, called “Anton's Law," aims to increase access to officer disciplinary records currently shielded from the public. It is named for Anton Black, a 19-year-old who died in custody in 2018 in Greensboro, Maryland.
Tawanda Jones' brother died after being arrested during a traffic stop. Suspecting that a bulge in his sock contained drugs, the officers said they chased, and ultimately tackled West, who was in handcuffs.
An autopsy revealed no serious injuries or signs of asphyxia, and the officers were not charged in West’s death. But an independent forensic review initiated by a family attorney later concluded that West suffocated, contradicting an assertion that he died of a heart condition.
In 2017, the state and city paid his family $1 million to settle a federal lawsuit alleging police misconduct.
While Tawanda Jones says reforms would be a step forward, she said closed cases need to be reopened.
“Even though I’m very hopeful, at the same time, it’s almost like we won the battle ... but we still haven’t won the war," she said.