Accountability is key to police reform, panelists say at virtual town hall
Oct 12, 2020
In the wake of highly publicized cases of Black men and women dying in encounters with police that have spurred demonstrations across the country in recent months, the Maryland Catholic Conference convened a virtual town hall on police reform on Oct 6, 2020 that drew the insights of four panelists representing law enforcement, the state legislature, the legal system and the religious community.
“This is not, and should not be an ‘us versus them’ conversation,” said William Milam, the vice president of the Maryland State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. “Police officers are interested in learning how we can best serve our communities, and conversations like this will help us find practical solutions.”
Milam later added, “Responsible police reform will involve all of our stakeholders – the community, the church, law enforcement executives, law enforcement rank and file, prosecutors and legislators.”
Joining him on the panel discussion that was streamed online on Facebook and YouTube were Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory; Maryland State Delegate Darryl Barnes (District 25 – Prince George’s County) who serves on the Maryland House of Delegates Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability; and Renee Mortel Joy, chief of the Public Integrity Unit in the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office and member of the Prince George’s County Police Reform Work Group.
Noting the incidents that have led to nationwide demonstrations for racial justice and opposing police brutality, Archbishop Gregory said, “Social media highlights the unfortunate and too frequent examples of where police officials are accused of and often have engaged in very aggressive behavior against people, particularly people of color. Our nation has watched as too many African Americans have been killed or seriously wounded in an encounter with police.”
But Washington’s archbishop added, “The image is often skewed that the police community is dominated by rogue officers. We know that is not true. We know the overwhelming number of public officials in law enforcement are wonderful, generous, dedicated and serious guardians of public safety. Unfortunately, the cases that garner the attention of the media and public attention are the examples of cases I’m sure every police officer is embarrassed by. Unfortunately, it taints a wonderful community of public servants. We need to talk about the other side.”
Paula Gwynn Grant, the Secretary of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington who served as the moderator for the panel discussion, asked Del. Barnes about the focus of the state legislature’s Workgroup to Address Police Reform and Accountability.
Del. Barnes noted that the Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Del. Adrienne Jones, formed the workgroup because of “the civil unrest happening in the country today,” saying, “We need to put our arms around what’s going on and come up with meaningful legislation.”
He noted that reform discussions on issues like “no knock warrants” and the use of force like choke holds by police have been shaped by cases like that of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician shot to death in her apartment during a raid by Louisville police on March 13; and the death of George Floyd, who died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes during an arrest.
“Every state right now is having conversations around police reform,” said Del. Barnes, adding that the Maryland workgroup has brought in experts from around the state and across the country as it prepares legislation for the Maryland General Assembly that opens in January.
Reflecting on her experiences with the Public Integrity Unit of the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office, Renee Mortel Joy said her office investigates every police involved shooting or any police incident that results in a serious injury.
“A majority of police officers do really good things for our community, and we are grateful and indebted for that,” she said, adding, “…but we absolutely will hold police officers accountable when they do something wrong. We want to make sure there’s fairness and transparency through the entire process.”
Joy said some federal and state laws that give leeway to police officers can make it difficult to prosecute them in cases of wrongdoing, and for example, she pointed out that Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights “has great protections surrounding the personnel records of police officers,” which can hamper prosecutors’ investigations and prevent defense attorneys from getting relevant information.
Asked what she’s heard from people through the Prince George’s County Police Reform Work Group, Joy said, “A lot of constituents in Prince George’s County have a strong desire for transparency… (and) they want accountability when it comes to wrongdoing by police officers.”
She said residents in the county seem to have a growing fear about being treated fairly by police there and about some of the tactics being used by police.
Milam responded, “We want the same things. We want just and fair policing. We want accountability, and we want transparency. We just might disagree on how we get there.”
He noted that Maryland police are trying to be more transparent and have opened up the administrative hearings of officers accused of wrongdoing.
The Fraternal Order of Police official said the importance of police carrying out their duties in a good way is “personal to me,” because he’s been involved in policing for almost two decades and has made it his life’s work.
“Police officers remain committed to a higher calling, and we remain willing to place our lives in jeopardy in order to help others,” he said.
Milam noted that “responsible police reform involves taking a look at what we want from our officers and what might be better addressed by other professionals.” He said some laws that officers are being asked to enforce should be examined to see if they are outdated or are disproportionately impacting certain members of the community.
Police officers, he said, are sometimes asked to be medical professionals, providing CPR or delivering babies on the side of the road, and at other times, they’re asked to be counselors arriving at the scene of domestic disputes.
“When there’s a serious incident, we expect officers to make the right tactical decision every time, to use force only when necessary and only as a last resort, and that force must be used perfectly with no mistakes… to make a split-second decision that will affect someone’s life, their families, the officer’s life, the officer’s family and to be error free when doing that,” he said, adding, “because if not, you’ll then be an object of public ridicule, shame, embarrassment, criminal prosecution and possible jail time.”
Milam said police, like medical doctors, have review boards of their peers that are convened to review members’ actions, and he said, “I don’t think it’s wise to have an untrained person and ask them to decide on what police policies and tactics should be.”
Del. Barnes countered by noting, “We all take this personally. That’s why we’re having this conversation.”
He noted that the Prince George’s County Police Department has been known for sometimes using brutal force and has been accused of systematic racism, and minority citizens there and across the country are likewise taking the issue of police reform personally.
“We need to build that trust in the Black and Brown community. That trust is gone,” he said.
The Maryland delegate said legislators in the state are not looking at defunding police, but are considering reallocating funds for services police should not be doing that can be done by experts like counselors and mental health professionals.
The goal in his community, said Del. Barnes, is to strengthen the police department in Prince George’s County, so officers have the tools and the training they need to be successful, and they have “buy-in” from residents there.
Archbishop Gregory – who in 2019 became the first African American to serve as the archbishop of Washington -- mentioned another personal issue regarding police, “the talk” that Black parents have with their sons and daughters about being on their best behavior around police, so they are not subjected to police aggression. He said “the talk” was a fact of life for him growing up in Chicago decades ago, and remains a reality for Black families today.
“Until we get to the point where a young Black kid or a young Black man can feel safe when he’s encountering a police officer, we’ve got trouble,” he said.
Del. Barnes – who like the other panelists is African American – noted that he has sons who are 14 and 15.
“Unfortunately, I have to have that talk that every Black man has with their sons or daughters about what to do when you’re approached by a police officer,” he said. He added that as a 55-year-old Black man, when he’s driving down the street and he sees a police car pull behind him, “I still cringe. I put both hands on the wheel.”
A way that the police can rebuild trust is “through dialogue like we’re having now,” Del. Barnes said, noting that old-fashioned policies like community policing might be part of the answer.
Joy said police and prosecutors alike need to have training to help them identify unconscious bias they might have toward people as they carry out their work, so they are treating everyone fairly without preconceived notions. De-escalation training is also essential to help police officers deal with crisis situations, she said.
Milam responded that Maryland police officers are required to take training annually to help them recognize unconscious bias.
“We should be constantly evolving to the times. We’ve got to be aware of what’s going on around us, and we have to adapt to that,” he said. “Enhancing our training in any way we can is something we absolutely have to do. Our citizens, their lives, depend on it. We want the best trained officers responding to emergency calls.”
The police official agreed with Del. Barnes about the importance of community involvement, noting how Prince George’s County police officers have a mentoring program for middle schoolers that has helped at-risk students increase their grades and decrease fighting, tardiness and absences, and Baltimore police officers have a mentoring program for African American girls in city high schools that appears to be helping their graduation rates.
Milam noted that police officers are involved in other community activities like coaching youth sports and supporting charitable programs for needy families at Thanksgiving and Christmas and have also been involved in efforts to renovate homes for the poor.
“Officers have a place in the community, just as Del. Barnes alluded to. We want to be in the community, and we’re constantly looking at ways to do that,” Milam said.
Archbishop Gregory noted that Pope Francis’s new encyclical issued Oct. 4, 2020, “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” offers an important insight when discussing issues like police reform and racial justice.
“The letter that Pope Francis wrote is calling us to be brothers and sisters to one another,” he said. “It is that perspective, of seeing other people not as threats, not as people who are hostile, but as brothers and sisters.”
On Aug. 28, Archbishop Gregory celebrated a Mass of Peace and Justice at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. At that Mass, Archbishop Gregory announced the Archdiocese of Washington's new initiative, “Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism,” which will promote pastoral activities and outreach including prayer, listening sessions, faith formation opportunities and social justice work.
In June 2020, Maryland’s Catholic bishops released a statement on racial justice that called for “…healing, harmony and solutions that recognize that every person has been created in the image of God and that every person possesses human dignity. …We pray that God will guide us during these difficult times and give us the courage to act with conviction in our duty to seek racial equality, heal divisions, and build bridges of understanding and hope.”
Archbishop Gregory noted an ecumenical effort, the 2020 National Faith & Blue Weekend held on Oct. 10-12, 2020, a way that different faiths are building bridges with their local police departments through prayer services and inviting them to meet and address their congregations. Efforts like that, the archbishop said, “will go a long way” toward building understanding between communities and the police that serve them.
Local Catholic parishes that participated in that effort included Nativity Parish in Washington, D.C., and Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Solomons, Maryland.
In his closing remarks during the virtual town hall, Del. Barnes reflected on the local and state efforts aimed at crafting police reform legislation, saying, “There are changes that are coming. The community has spoken loud and clear about some changes they’d like to see. It’s my hope and goal that we can collectively continue to work together for the good of our community and enact laws (based on) what our police want and what our citizens would like to see.”
Days after the town hall, the Washington Post reported that a Goucher College poll found that most Marylanders view police favorably but support independent investigations of police wrongdoing, a statewide policy on the use of force by police, and having misconduct records of police being open to the public.
The Maryland Catholic Conference will convene a second town hall on police reform on Monday, Oct. 26, at 7:30 p.m., virtually hosted by St. Bernardine Parish, Baltimore. Panelists for the Oct. 26 town hall are scheduled to be Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori; Delegate Sandy Rosenberg (District 41 – Baltimore City); State Senator Jill Carter (District 41, City of Baltimore); and Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison.
Maryland is home to about one million Catholics. The Maryland Catholic Conference is the statewide public policy arm of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Archdiocese of Washington, and Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, which includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore.