By Lexie Schapitl
Capital News Service
On April 12, 2015, one day before the close of that year’s legislative session, Baltimore City police arrested 25-year-old Freddie Carlos Gray for possessing what they said was an illegal switchblade. Officers placed Gray in the back of a police van to be transported to the station.
While riding in the van, Gray suffered a spinal injury and was taken to the hospital, where he underwent surgery and fell into a coma. On April 19, 2015, days after state legislators had packed up and left Annapolis, Gray died.
Gray’s death sparked huge civil unrest in the city that became national news.
One year later, dozens of legislative proposals resulted from or garnered additional attention because of the death of a disadvantaged, young, black man from West Baltimore and the long-standing frustrations this incident brought to the surface.
From police relations and prison reform to poverty and urban blight, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore, said, Gray’s death and the following unrest brought a spotlight to issues the city has been facing for a long time.
“We’re paying attention to things as simple as lighting in neighborhoods, something that probably would not have gotten the attention that it’s currently getting,” Pugh said in March. “No question that Freddie Gray has had a great impact.”
As a result, lawmakers during this year’s session were more willing to address the city’s challenges, said Pugh, who on April 26 won the Democratic primary for Baltimore’s mayoral race.
“As is now clear, Freddie Gray’s death and what happened in the aftermath radically changed the political and legislative priorities of Baltimore and the state legislature,” said William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr., a Baltimore attorney who represents the Gray family.
Policing and justice measures
One General Assembly measure, an omnibus bill to reform public safety and policing practices, made changes to the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. The legislation includes provisions to allow citizens to file complaints against police anonymously; to extend the time period during which Marylanders can file complaints from 90 days to one year and a day after an incident; and to establish new standards for training, evaluation and discipline of officers.
The bill was based on the recommendations of the Public Safety and Policing Workgroup, which formed in May 2015 to examine law enforcement practices across the state. Pugh, state Senate co-chair of the workgroup, said she thinks this group would not have existed had it not been for Gray.
“What people saw on the news during the unrest…it certainly exposed the problems that exist in Baltimore,” she said. “All of this unrest helps to evoke the conversations that people don’t really want to have about the discriminatory practices that exist in our nation, and conversations that need to be had around inclusion, and diversity, and…equalization of wealth in our nation.”
The Rev. Jamal Bryant, a Baltimore pastor who eulogized Freddie Gray, said he raised concerns about misconduct within the city’s police department months before Gray died. But Gray’s death has allowed these issues to gain more traction.
“Now the whole world is watching and looking to see how will we rebound,” Bryant said
“We worked on it all summer long and I think we got it right,” Pugh said, after the Assembly passed the workgroup bill on the last day of its session.
Other, failed proposals would have allowed police departments to remove officers without pay for some misdemeanor convictions and classified additional violations as officer misconduct — including disabling body cameras, failing to request medical attention for a person in custody, and improper use of force.
Criminal justice reform
The Assembly also passed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill on the last day of the session, after negotiations to reconcile differences between the House and Senate proposals. The Justice Reinvestment Act aims to reduce the number of Marylanders in prison and reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders by focusing on treatment rather than incarceration. The bill includes provisions to expand expungement policies, reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences and amend parole and probation procedures.
Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, called the legislation a “game-changer.”
“We’ve never looked at (the criminal justice system) in a holistic way,” Zirkin said. “In my 18 years down here there’s never been a bigger piece of legislation that I’ve ever seen.”
Murphy said this session’s criminal justice overhaul on sentencing and drug possession “will have far-reaching consequences” for the people of Baltimore, as the “sweeping package of legislative reforms” aims to minimize unnecessary incarceration and focus on rehabilitation.
Protecting future Freddie Grays
Another bill introduced in response to Gray’s death would have required law enforcement officers to use protective headgear with a face shield on people they place in custody with the use of “physical restraint.”
“While being transported in a police van, Mr. Gray fell into a coma and was taken to the hospital. Mr. Gray died as a result of injuries to his spinal cord on April 19, 2015,” the bill’s legislative analysis states. “Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts reported that, contrary to department policy, the officers did not secure Mr. Gray inside the van while transporting him to the police station. The autopsy found that Mr. Gray had sustained the injuries while in transport.”
The bill received an unfavorable report from the House Judiciary Committee and failed to advance.
Two state senators sponsored a bill this session that would prohibit counties and municipalities from enacting regulations on knives that are more restrictive or come with harsher penalties than state law allows.
The bill’s fiscal and policy note cites that Baltimore City Police arrested Gray “for possessing what the police alleged was an illegal switchblade.” This bill also died in a committee.
The General Assembly passed a bill this session that will provide tax credits aimed to encourage Baltimore public safety officers to live in the city. According to a legislative analysis, 21 percent of city police, fire and sheriff’s officers live within Baltimore, while 68 percent live in other parts of Maryland and 10 percent live out of state.
Pugh and other sponsors in both chambers proposed a bill that would have created a Commission to Study the Disproportionate Justice Impact on Minorities, but this legislation failed.
This session also saw the General Assembly pass several pieces of legislation aimed to help revitalize Baltimore. Pugh said this session will bring $290 million back to the city.
The Rebuilding Baltimore City Communities Act of 2016 establishes a property tax credit for real estate in city neighborhoods with a vacant dwelling rate of at least 35 percent. This bill is awaiting Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature.
One bill created a fund to provide grants and loans to assist in demolition and development for revitalization projects in Baltimore and other areas of the state. The bill also requires the governor to appropriate more than $22 million to this fund for projects in the city specifically for fiscal year 2018. Another bill establishes the Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative Program to focus local housing and business investment in communities where it can have the most impact; it also requires Hogan to include $12 million for the program’s fund in the annual budget bill, for fiscal 2018 through 2022. These proposals passed early and became law because the governor did not return them with objections during the session.
Lead poisoning prevention and settlements
After Gray’s death, the Washington Post published a series of articles detailing his struggle with lead poisoning in a poor West Baltimore neighborhood. The General Assembly this session took up several bills that aimed to combat child lead poisoning in the state.
As a child, Gray’s blood had increasing levels of lead, likely the result of chipped paint in his apartment, the Post reported. There is no safe blood level of lead in children, according to the CDC.
The impact of lead poisoning is irreversible, and makes children more likely to drop out of school or become involved with juvenile crime, Ruth Ann Norton, president of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, said at a February Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing on lead legislation. Lead also has long-term impacts including hypertension, cardiac arrest, and early mortality, she added.
Gray and his siblings filed a lawsuit against a former landlord in 2008 and settled for an undisclosed amount, according to the Post. Gray later agreed to sell $146,000 worth of his structured settlement, with value at that time of $94,000, to a local company called Access Funding for about $18,300, the Post reported.
This news led Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh to take action against what he called “predatory” companies.
Frosh sponsored legislation requiring that courts find transfers to be in the best interest of the payee and that applications for transfer are filed in the jurisdiction in which the payee resides. The bill passed the General Assembly on April 8 and now sits on Hogan’s desk.
“It’s a dark business,” Frosh said after a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing on the bill in March. “People are literally calling up the most vulnerable members of society and purchasing their property for pennies on the dollar, and it’s a practice we want to bring to a halt.”
But other bills relating to lead poisoning didn’t succeed this session. For example, the Maryland Lead Poisoning Recovery Act, which would have held lead pigment manufacturers liable for damages and required the governor to put money toward lead abatement and prevention programs, failed to move out of committee.
While Murphy applauded the legislature’s criminal justice reforms, he said he was disappointed that police accountability and lead-poisoning prevention efforts did not go far enough. The use of police body cameras, for example, could have a “tremendous impact on Freddie Gray’s neighborhood,” but “there’s much left to be done to protect the citizens from improper police conduct,” he said.
Murphy suggested the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights should be “scuttled, if not overhauled,” and that victims of police injuries should be able to win more than the $400,000 allowed by damages caps in state lawsuits.
He will be heavily involved in efforts to further address these issues next session, he said.
Despite some legislative accomplishments, Bryant agreed there is still work to be done to aid Baltimore communities.
“Most of it I think was, by and large, gesture, or a tip of the hat or a head nod, but not really full clean sweeps of what needs to happen,” said Bryant, who also stressed the need to improve education services in the city.
Bryant said “the jury is still out” on how this session’s legislation might help the people of Baltimore, citing the impact that a new mayor, presidential administration and national atmosphere could have.
Bryant said while he does not believe the officers involved in Gray’s death will be “held accountable,” police reform legislation offers a “glimmer of hope that maybe things will be different down the road.”
Some members of the community have expressed concerns the police accountability legislation lacks “teeth,” and is more symbolic than substantive, Bryant said.
“It is a beginning,” Bryant said. “For us to even have a discussion I think is birthed out of the Freddie Gray uprising…while the bill in total doesn’t go far enough, it wouldn’t have gotten this far had we not had the uprising.”
“We’re on the upward swing, I believe, for healing to happen in the city between police and community,” he added.