Baltimore Activists Recount How Police Unions Crushed Accountability Reforms

Before Freddie Gray's death, police unions flexed their muscle and crushed any chance for accountability reform this year in Maryland.

A man holds a sign during a protest for Freddie Gray outside the Baltimore Police Department's Western District police station, Thursday, April 23, 2015, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

(This post is from our new blog: Unofficial Sources.)

Only weeks before Freddie Gray’s death while in custody of Baltimore police, cops from around the state filled a committee hearing room in Annapolis to aggressively lobby against a wave of reform bills aimed at increasing police accountability in Maryland. The police won: every bill to make it easier to investigate and prosecute police misconduct went down to defeat, leaving the state’s extraordinarily cop-friendly laws in place. (It’s a measure of the egregious circumstances of Gray’s death and the public outcry afterward that six police officers have nevertheless been indicted.)

Civil rights advocates say they were heavily outgunned — metaphorically — by the police.

Police unions play a significant role in Maryland politics, from campaign endorsements to influence peddling. According to public records, the largest police associations, including the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, donated $1,834,680 to state politicians over the last decade and retained several of the most prominent lobbyists in the state.

The Maryland State FOP organized its members to show up in force during the hearing on the police reform bills. The Facebook page for the group shows officers packing the legislative room when the reform bills were debated.

“It was not a level playing field, we’re not the FOP, we don’t have the same type of strong relationship with the delegates, the state legislators,” said Farajii Muhammad, one of the organizers of the reform effort.

“Our people said that the committee leadership was worried about the police reaction,” explained Thomas Nephew, an activist with the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition, who was present at the March 12th hearing. “One of the legislative leaders said something like, if these bills go through, the cops will riot in the streets, which really tells you something.”

The police were simply more organized and had better relationships with the lawmakers, Nephew said.

A coalition including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the ACLU, the NAACP and members of Maryland’s faith community pushed for changes to the “Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights,” a law that critics say sets a standard that makes investigating and disciplining police misconduct nearly impossible.

“We’re still going to have this fight,” said Muhammad in an interview over the phone. Muhammad, who has organized community efforts in Freddie Gray’s neighorhood and has worked with the American Friends Service Committee, says he is working on building a diverse coalition to force discussion of the issue.

“I think it’s a shame, it’s an absolute shame, given the nature of this issue, what we’re seeing right now in Baltimore and all across this country, that in a state like Maryland, we’re still using a very old era way of thinking,” said Muhammad.

A recent report from the ACLU of Maryland found that at least 109 people died in police encounters in Maryland from 2010 to 2014.

“We’re going to put some pressure on the governor to have a special session to address these bills,” said Muhammad. Still, he said he feels that community activists have limited power in the traditional political system. Muhammad’s group does not have any registered lobbyists and does not give money to the campaigns of lawmakers.

During the hearing last March several state legislators heard stories from witnesses about police misconduct, but were not swayed. Del. Deborah Rey said reforms were unnecessary because Maryland is not comparable to Ferguson, Missouri.

The House Judiciary Committee is stacked with politicians with close ties to law enforcement.

Judiciary member Del. Brett Wilson is a prosecutor. Del. John Cluster, another member of the committee, is a retired police officer who called for a new law this year that would hire 900 additional cops in Maryland to place an armed officer in every school in the state. Cluster, who was honored as the legislator of the year by the Baltimore County FOP in 2014, is also chairman of Maryland Correctional Enterprises. The MCE is a state-owned company that manages Maryland’s prison labor, a workforce that manufacturers Maryland flags and furniture for the legislature and University of Maryland, College Park.

But activists are not giving up hope.

“This tragedy has brought triumph in uniting people together, street organizations, Muslims and Christians, various neighborhoods,” said Muhammad. “There’s a new level of awareness, of consciousness right here in Baltimore.”

Photo: AP/Patrick Semansky

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