ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland Senate voted Thursday for a measure to give the state’s attorney general independent authority to bring criminal charges against police officers after investigating deaths when officers are involved.
The bill, which passed on a 27-20 vote, would expand a part of a package of police reforms approved two years ago in response to concerns about police accountability after the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. The measure now goes to the House, where a similar bill has also been filed.
The Independent Investigations Division was created in the attorney general’s office to investigate in-custody deaths of civilians throughout the state, including police shootings. Current law empowers the division to probe the cases and provide facts to local prosecutors who then decide whether to prosecute.
Supporters of the bill say it aims to end potential conflicts of interest between local prosecutors and police. Opponents say it’s an overreach of state powers over locally elected prosecutors.
Sen. Steve Hershey, who is the Senate minority leader, said the bill isn’t a solution to serious crime problems facing the state.
“It is shameful that we have not addressed the crime in this state, and yet we’re going to pass legislation that makes it easier for the state of Maryland to prosecute police officers,” said Hershey, an Eastern Shore Republican.
Sen. Will Smith, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and sponsored the bill, told senators during debate: “Don’t let anyone tell you that accountability is mutually exclusive of public safety.”
“In fact, we all know that they’re co-dependent, and that’s exactly what this bill seeks to do: to restore that relationship and to restore that trust so that the communities can work with law enforcement and public safety officials to make sure that we’re all safer,” said Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat.
The independent division was created on Oct. 1, 2021. So far, it has investigated 30 deaths of civilians involving police. Local prosecutors have decided not to prosecute in 17 of those cases, while the others are still open.
The proposed change was widely opposed by local prosecutors: state’s attorneys in 23 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions opposed it, according to the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association.
The tension that can arise between state investigators and local prosecutors under the existing law recently became apparent in the aftermath of a Baltimore police shooting last year.
After conducting its review of the case, the investigations division released a report that found prosecutors could likely prove one of the officers committed voluntary manslaughter, but Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates declined to pursue any criminal charges. In his own review, Bates found two officers acted “reasonably and lawfully” when they opened fire on a fleeing teenage driver with an outstanding bench warrant.
Bates said Donnell Rochester, 18, created a life-threatening situation by driving toward one officer. However, investigators with the attorney general’s office determined Rochester “no longer posed a threat” when the officer, Connor Murray, fired a fourth and fatal shot moments after jumping away from the moving vehicle and removing himself from its path. That shot – the only one that struck Rochester – lodged in his chest, killing him.
Investigators said another officer, who fired two more subsequent shots from down the street, could face an attempted voluntary manslaughter charge because he should have realized his colleague was no longer in danger before pulling the trigger.
Though investigators suggested potential criminal charges in their report, they stopped short of making an explicit recommendation because the current law leaves that decision up to local prosecutors.
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