Police Use Of Force

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Right now, Maryland is one of only nine states that has no law on the use of deadly force by the police. This is one of several issues identified in a new Amnesty International study discussed in a Baltimore Sun story on the deliberations of the joint House-Senate task force studying police issues.

Instead of a uniform statewide policy, each jurisdiction has created its own policy.

A review of use-of-force policies provided by the Maryland State Police and county police and sheriff’s departments in the Baltimore region, however, showed general similarities but also substantive variations in language and guidance to officers.

State troopers are permitted to use deadly force “in self-defense, or to defend another person who is being unlawfully attacked, from death or serious injury.” It may also be used “to prevent the escape of a felon” under certain circumstances, including when it is a last resort and the office has a reasonable belief that the individual “poses a significant threat of using deadly force against a trooper or others if not immediately apprehended.”

In Baltimore County, deadly force “may be applied in immediate danger situations, where present peril or jeopardy exists and the officer has a reasonable belief that action must be taken instantly or without considerable delay.”

In Howard County, deadly force “may only be used in self-defense or in the defense of others when an officer is confronted by what he has reason to believe is the imminent threat of death or serious physical injury,” or “as a last resort” to prevent the escape of a suspect who officers believe presents an imminent threat of death or serious injury to others.

The policies in Anne Arundel and Harford counties are similar.

All of the policies elaborate on the circumstances necessary for the use of deadly force in substantially different ways — discussing the use of vehicles by suspects, the use of canines by police and the amount of information an officer has about a suspect at the time of the incident.

This is not the best way to get it done, says Amnesty.

Justin Mazzola, an Amnesty International researcher who helped compile the report, said department-level policies are insufficient to bring about change.

“It’s not accountability,” Mazzola said. “A violation of a policy is an administrative infraction. It’s not what meets international law and standards when you are giving the authority to police to use not only force, but lethal force. That has to be codified within law.”

Predictably, police organizations are resistant to a uniform state law.

Harris, the Pittsburgh law professor, said any attempt by Maryland to restrict police beyond the federal standard will likely meet resistance from police departments and unions, which have generally fought to keep limits on their use of power in line with the standards established at the federal level.

“What police department is going to want to limit its police officers in terms of what they are constitutionally allowed to do?” Harris said.

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[Senator Catherine] Pugh [co-chair of the task force] said the panel will review the Amnesty report, but also plans to talk about existing use-of-force policies with police agencies — which legislators do not wish to further alienate.

“Let’s not make [any new standard] so restrictive that people feel they can’t do their jobs,” she said. “We want police in our communities, but we want them to respect our communities.”

When even the idea of a new law on use of force results in pushback, it becomes clear that this process is not going to end well.

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