By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Baltimore rioting over the death of a black man from injuries in police custody is spurring Maryland lawmakers to take action on criminal justice reform after legislation stalled in the statehouse.
Legislators hope that the death of Freddie Gray, 25, can galvanize the Democratic-controlled state Assembly after bids for reforms, especially one that would alter a state law giving police special rights, went nowhere in the last legislative session.
"Unfortunately for Freddie Gray, he becomes symbolic of similar type of issues facing police departments across the nation," said state Senator Catherine Pugh, co-chair of a 20-member bipartisan working group appointed this month to study police issues.
Maryland, one of the most liberal U.S. states, is the latest to grapple with reforms after the death of Gray and those of other unarmed black males at the hands of police in Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and elsewhere.
"The problem of policing is not just a Baltimore problem, not just a Maryland problem, but it's a nationwide problem," said Pugh, who represents the impoverished neighborhood where Gray lived.
South Carolina recently passed legislation approving body cameras for all police and California's state senate has approved a bill barring prosecutors from convening secret grand juries to investigate claims of police brutality. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and Ohio's John Kasich, a Republican, have also called for reviews of police use of force.
The protests in Maryland following Gray's death last month increased the sense of urgency for action there, said Pugh, who is also the senate majority leader.
Gray sustained spinal injuries while being arrested, and six officers were charged in his death, including a murder count. Unrest after Gray's funeral grew so violent that Republican Governor Larry Hogan ordered the National Guard into the largely black city of about 620,000 people and a curfew, now lifted, was put in place.
Underscoring the challenge police face in Baltimore, the city has recorded 107 homicides this year as of Monday, up from 74 at the same time last year. Although police did not provide a total number of murders since Gray's death on April 19, the Baltimore Sun said there had been 47 killings in that period.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the use of force by Baltimore police and potential civil rights violations in the 3,200-member department.
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a report in March that at least 109 people in Maryland had died in police-related killings from 2009 to 2014. Seventy percent of the victims were black.
Pugh said her group could start hearings next month to consider increasing economic opportunities for ex-convicts, job rotation for officers and other reforms. Maryland's next legislative session starts in January.
The Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, which opposed several initiatives in the last session, is eager to work with Pugh's group, said Frank Boston, the union's lobbyist.
"We think that the work group itself is balanced and we're looking forward to constructive dialogue and dealing with the aftermath of the Freddie Gray situation," he said.
FOP opposition helped scuttle more than a dozen bills in the last session, including measures to mandate state prosecutors investigate all killings by police officers and to add a civilian review process.
One target of new reforms could be the state's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which requires that police misconduct probes be carried out only by fellow officers.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had lobbied to change that restriction by giving the city police commissioner more power to discipline officers.
"We'll be watching the work in Annapolis to see what ideas they come up with to help us to achieve those objectives," a spokesman for the mayor said.
PACKAGE OF MEASURES
Although some reforms were turned back, Hogan this month signed a package of police-related bills. They featured creating a commission to study the use of body cameras by police and ordering the reporting of deaths in police custody to the governor's office.
Todd Eberly, a political analyst at St. Mary's College of Maryland, said the damage the Gray case had done to the state's image could overcome longstanding reluctance in the Assembly to increased scrutiny of police.
Lawmakers also could face voter anger if they fail to act, since blacks are disproportionately victims of police brutality and African Americans are the core of the Democratic Party in the state, Eberly said.
"To be seen as sort of ignoring this or dragging the feet and hoping that it sort of goes away, it would just be a bad political strategy," he said.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Lambert)