County sheriff, Frederick chief find fault with police reform package

May 3—After sweeping police reform legislation passed in Annapolis, Frederick County law enforcement leaders are left wondering who will fund the changes and how new laws will affect officers' ability to protect the community.

The package of bills known as the Maryland Police Accountability Act passed in early April included the repeal of the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, new regulations for use of force and search warrants, increased public access to police records, and more. Its push through the General Assembly came against a backdrop of heightened national scrutiny of law enforcement in the wake of police-involved killings across the country.

To put it lightly, Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins is no fan of the accountability act. He suggested, in an interview, the force behind these changes was driven by "liberal, pandering politicians."

"It's going to damage law enforcement. It's going to make law enforcement less effective. At the end of the day ... it's going to be detrimental to the public, I really believe that," Jenkins said in an interview shortly after the General Assembly overturned Gov. Larry Hogan's (R) vetoes of the bills.

While newly-appointed Frederick Police Chief Jason Lando said the intent of lawmakers was "noble," he fears "little consideration" was given to "unintended consequences." He wrote in an email, "...some of the other measures in these bills will embolden criminals while simultaneously demanding absolute perfection from officers. Frankly, they put cops and law-abiding citizens at risk."

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Among the reform is the requirement for all law enforcement agencies to have police-worn body cameras by 2025. The deadline is 2023 for some agencies outside Frederick County, plus the Maryland State Police, which has a barrack in Frederick. Locally, Frederick Police Department is the only agency to use body cameras.

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Maryland State Police as a whole expects it will cost $3.3 million upfront to equip nearly 1,500 sworn employees, spokesman Greg Shipley said, with an annual maintenance cost of about $1.9 million. The agency has been in the process of replacing in-car cameras, which are compatible with a body-worn feature. Whatever the cost, Shipley said, the state police will continue to adapt as they have for 100 years.

Frederick County State's Attorney Charlie Smith has said in the past he sees the value in body cameras, but now is faced with the expense that comes with the new requirement.

"Full scale deployment in Frederick County and City will add millions of dollars in expense to my budget in the coming years," Smith said via email. "Nevertheless, we will continue to take our obligations seriously and ensure that footage is reviewed, redacted and provided to the fullest extent of the law. We will ensure that the privacy of citizens is appropriately secure, and the rights of the accused are maintained."

Though the sheriff's office tested body cameras in a 2017 pilot, Jenkins believes their full implementation will make little difference. He has said the cameras only capture a portion of an incident.

Search warrants and use of force

Jenkins and Lando each voiced concerns about the new search warrant rules that come with the accountability act. When the law goes into effect, no-knock warrants must be executed between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., absent exigent circumstances.

"So drug dealers, drug traffickers, wait until 7 p.m. at night and get your drugs out on the table and do your crimes while we can't come into your house with a no-knock warrant," Jenkins said. "It doesn't make sense."

The sheriff said his office uses no-knock warrants rarely, less than 1 percent of the time, and that there are criteria they consider before requesting one from a judge, such as criminal history and whether there is a threat.

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Lando described the new search warrant restrictions in general as "unrealistic."

The act also seeks to change the way use of force is employed by police.

The accountability act changes the use of force standard from "objective reasonableness" to "necessary" and "proportional." Officers found guilty of intentionally violating that standard will face criminal penalties. Jenkins fears this may make some officers, generally speaking, hesitate in life-threatening situations.

"In our business, second guessing and seconds cost lives," he said.

Lando acknowledged officers are faced with situations where they have to make life-altering decisions in split seconds.

"Most of the time, police officers do get it right," Lando wrote. "Sometimes they make honest mistakes. And yes, sometimes there are just bad cops who should not be allowed to wear the badge."

He and Jenkins, in separate interviews, agreed officers found guilty of wrongdoing should be off the force. But they also want to be able to retain and recruit good officers. Jenkins suspects the new restrictions will make that more difficult.

"I think that there's not a sheriff or chief across the state of Maryland that doesn't want to keep his house clean," the sheriff said.

Part of that so-called housekeeping involves disciplining officers. In the future, civilian committees will have a large part in handling complaints against officers and consider how to discipline them. Jenkins stands against this.

"It's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback," he said. "That officer has got split fractions of split seconds to make that decision."

Jenkins feels as if the new laws usurp his authority as an elected sheriff.

"I answer to the people of this county," he said. "I'm the one that's concerned about their health, welfare, their safety ... but my hands are going to be tied because of this."

Despite their concerns, Jenkins and Lando made clear there are parts of the bills they aren't opposed to. For example, Jenkins sees no issue with requiring an officer to identify themself, their agency and the reason for a traffic stop. He said most of his deputies take that action already.

Lando pointed out some of the new requirements, such as body cameras, were implemented by FPD already.

"A number of the requirements in [House Bill] 670 make sense, and many progressive police departments, including Frederick PD, implemented these reforms years ago," Lando wrote. "The use of body worn cameras, use-of-force reporting and accountability, early warning systems for troubled officers, implicit bias training, and peer support programs are all important and must be embraced by police leaders."

Lando added he believes the community and police leaders, who understand daily challenges officers face, should have a voice in police reform.

Parts of the act will begin to take effect later this year.

Follow Mary Grace Keller on Twitter:

@MaryGraceKeller.

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