ANNAPOLIS – Giving citizens the power to enforce subpoenas of police officers may be going too far said the chairman of a Senate committee considering the bill Tuesday.
“Are we going to put a badge and gun on everyone in Prince George’s County?” asked Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil.
Baker’s committee is weighing a bill backed by the Prince George’s County Delegation giving the power to enforce subpoenas to a county citizen’s panel investigating complaints against the police department.
The bill, which passed the House 127-7 two weeks ago, is the last hope for county activists seeking tools to hold the police department accountable. All other bills have failed.
The Prince George’s County Police Department has been tainted in recent years by allegations of abuse and excessive force.
Two Prince George’s County officers were accused in a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month of beating a man so severely he suffered brain damage. In other cases, officers have been accused of coercing confessions during lengthy interrogations.
In response to years of complaints, the county created the Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel to investigate complaints against law enforcement.
The panel now relies on the County Council to apply for and enforce subpoenas. If a person fails to comply with the County Council subpoena, the citizen’s panel has no power to seek a court order.
The future of the bill, which the Senate committee did not vote on Tuesday, is uncertain.
Baker said he was concerned that the bill would give citizens too much power.
“I have a real problem giving subpoena power to a private group of citizens,” Baker said. “That is a government authority.”
Brown explained the County Council would have to issue the subpoena. The legislation would allow the oversight panel to go to court to enforce the order if a person failed to comply with the council subpoena.
“Our County Council, which is often wrestling with other issues, may not have the time to go to court,” said Delegate Anthony G. Brown, D-Prince George’s. “It gives (the oversight panel) the standing to seek enforcement.”
At the Senate hearing Tuesday, only Brown was allowed to testify because of rules restricting testimony on House bills before a Senate committee.
The Prince George’s County Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police opposed the bill before the House earlier this month.
“Many cases have been taken to various state courts concerning the required testimony of law enforcement officers by citizens complaint panels,” Prince George’s County FOP President Anthony M. Walker said in a written statement. “… Officers cannot be compelled to testify.”
However, a similar citizen’s review board in Baltimore already has subpoena power, said Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, D-Baltimore. The Baltimore panel has used the power once or twice in the last three years, he said.
Another police accountability bill backed by the Prince George’s County Delegation was killed by Judicial Proceedings earlier this session. It would have made statewide changes to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, shortening the waiting period that officers have before being interrogated about a shooting or other incident from 10 days to three.
– 30 – CNS 3/26/01