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States urged to repeal cops’ special legal protections

With hope of federal legislation dead, the fight for policing reform moves to states

Late last month, once-promising negotiations to strike a bipartisan deal on policing reform broke down on Capitol Hill, dashing hopes for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

“After months of exhausting every possible pathway to a bipartisan deal, it remains out of reach right now,” U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who led the negotiations, said in a statement. “The time has come to explore all other options to achieve meaningful and common-sense policing reform.”

Far from giving up, civil rights advocates say they’ll step up their efforts at the state level, where they still see momentum for reform. As soon as new legislative sessions start, they’ll renew calls for progressive proposals — including a ban on chokeholds, restricting no-knock warrants and ending qualified immunity, among others.

Fierce opposition from police unions helped kill such proposals in many statehouses this year. But advocates see glimmers of hope on one front: a push to repeal the so-called Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which gives special legal protections to police officers under internal investigation for alleged misconduct.

Since Maryland became the first state to enact the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights in 1974, more than 20 states have adopted a version of it, according to the National Police Accountability Project.

Standard provisions in most states’ versions of the law include a mandatory cooling-off period of up to 10 days before police officers have to cooperate with investigations, a requirement that only fellow police officers, not civilians, could question them, and an automatic scrubbing of records of complaints against them after a certain period.

The law came under scrutiny after Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police last year, as millions of protesters spilled into the streets to demand justice. In some states, this led to calls for reform — if not an outright repeal.

In April, Maryland again became the trailblazer — this time being the first state to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights as part of a larger package of policing reform measures.

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Lauren Bonds, legal director of the National Police Accountability Project, said Maryland could be the first of many dominoes to fall, with Delaware and Rhode Island looking poised to follow suit.

In some Republican-controlled states, however, the trend could go in the other direction. A case in point: Missouri lawmakers voted to adopt a version of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights last month as other states are moving to repeal it.

Bonds said advocates are “prepared to play defense in some states and offense in others.”

“One reason that I think there’s going to be continued momentum is that people who are really doing the work on the ground are better prepared than they were last year,” Bonds said.

Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, said he’s confident that, while the details still need to be worked out, reform will be adopted in his state during the next legislative session.

But Brown said reforming the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights will not be enough. To ensure true police accountability, it will need to be coupled with changes to the state’s public records law, which currently allows the results of misconduct investigations to be withheld from the public, he said.

“The idea … is to try to promote greater transparency and accountability when it comes to police misconduct,” Brown said. “If the public can be kept in the dark about what is happening when an officer is accused of misconduct, then [Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights] reform will only go so far.”

Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.

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Derek Simeone/CC BY 2.0

A protestor speaks with a line of Seattle Police Department officers during the George Floyd protests in Seattle, Washington.