Officers Bill of Rights is an obstacle to reform.

Contrary to The Sun‘s recent editorial, the best way to ensure that Baltimore City’s police commissioner gets the tools he needs to discipline misbehaving officers is by addressing the defects in the Maryland Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights as a Baltimore problem in need of a Baltimore solution, not a statewide effort (“Not a Baltimore problem,” Feb 3).  Given the opposition to reform in other jurisdictions of the state there may be no other way forward.

As the agency responsible for a large urban center with high rates of unemployment and crime, the Baltimore City Police Department daily faces challenges that other departments in the state rarely see.  The commissioner must be able to act swiftly to resolve minor disciplinary problems in his force before they become large ones. Currently, even if the commissioner wishes to do no more than to transfer an officer for violating an order or breaking a rule he must first offer the officer the opportunity for a full-blown evidentiary hearing before a hearing board under department rules.  Tying the commissioner’s hands this way is a recipe for losing control over the conduct of his officers.

The fact that Maryland has a law of statewide applicability governing the discipline of police officers is a product of the trade union mentality that pervades the entirety of the Officers Bill of Rights. The Maryland Fraternal Order of Police wants every department in the state to be subject to a uniform law because that advances the interests of its members.  That this one-size-fits-all approach fails to take into consideration the differences among police departments is not the FOP’s concern. Does the General Assembly actually believe that managing a big city police department with unique demands is the same as running any other police agency?

Maryland’s Officers Bill of rights is widely recognized as among the most anti-management in the nation in terms of diluting police commanders’ control over the conduct of the officers they supervise. In the 40 years since the law was first enacted, the power of police chiefs has been further constricted by amendments to point where police chiefs have little direct control over the discipline and performance of their subordinates. It is far harder to get rid of a bad cop in Maryland than it should be.

At the very least, the law should be fixed as it applies to the jurisdiction where it causes the most acute problem. Either give the Baltimore City Police commissioner the tools to do his job or accept that neither Commissioner Anthony Batts nor Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake can be held accountable for failing to improve the discipline and integrity of the department.

The FOP’s contention that Ms. Rawlings-Blake’s initiative is “anti-police” doesn’t hold water. The law in its present form is a vestige of trade unionism that has disappeared in most other states, that impedes professional discipline, and that has nothing to do with fair and effective policing. Police commanders, not police unions, must be in charge of police discipline.

[Published as a Letter to the Editor by The Baltimore Sun on February 9, 2015.  I did not post the letter until May 31, 2016; the date of posting listed above was backdated to place the letter on the blog in the order it was written.]

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