- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

Legislation to change a Maryland law that protects police officers accused of using excessive force failed in the General Assembly, stalling what activists and some Prince George's County leaders say is key to bringing police accountability to the county force.
For the second straight year, bills sponsored by county legislators that would weaken the Law Enforcement Officer's Bill of Rights failed to make it out of committees in the House and Senate during the session that ended this week.
The law affords some protection to officers involved in shootings, giving them 10 days before they are required to answer questions about the incident if they don't hire an attorney during that time.
Critics of the Prince George's police, a department that faces an ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation into accusations of brutality, say officers use the law as a shield against internal probes. Without swift investigations, the say, officers can't be held accountable to residents.
"We firmly believe that this law gives police license to behave in a certain way," said Redmon Barnes of the People's Coalition for Police Accountability. "We think that will eventually become clear to lawmakers."
A House bill would have cut the waiting period to three days and required internal police-investigation teams to include a civilian member. The change would have applied only to Prince George's County. A statewide version died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Proposed changes to the law have faced stiff opposition from the police union and some county lawmakers, including Delegate Joseph F. Vallario Jr., Prince George's Democrat and head of the House Judiciary Committee. Any change to the law would have to be approved by the committee before moving to the full House.
Mr. Vallario said a change in the law can't be tailored to fit the needs of just one county.
"You can't piecemeal the law enforcement bill of rights," he said. "If it were a statewide bill, that would be considered on its merits."
However, it could be difficult to convince regions of the state without significant police problems to make a change just to satisfy Prince George's.
Politicians such as Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry are supporting the law merely for political gain and aren't willing to fight for it, police union head Tony Walker said.
"I can't accept that there is a practical need to change the law if you are doing it for political reasons," said Mr. Walker, who testified in Annapolis against a change.
Mr. Curry faulted state lawmakers for not pushing the bill that he made a central part of his legislative agenda for this year. Charges that he is using the law for his political purposes are unfounded, he said.
"[Mr. Walkers] observation is, as usual, off the mark. We've introduced more progressive change than any single police office in the country and done so voluntarily," he said.
Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, sponsor of the House legislation and chairman of the county delegation to the General Assembly, said there needs to be more community support for altering the law.
It would take a public groundswell similar to the outcry over the troubled school board to prompt a change in the law, Mr. Baker said.
"It could go somewhere if the same amount of pressure that helped change the school board comes," he said.

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