June 8, 2015 / 7:59 PM / 2 years ago

Maryland lawmakers begin hearings on police reforms after riot

People gather at city hall in Baltimore, Maryland May 2, 2015.Eric Thayer

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Reuters) - A Maryland legislative task force began hearings on Monday on law-enforcement reforms, spurred by the death of a black man from injuries in Baltimore police custody.

Many lawmakers hope that the death of Freddie Gray, 25, which caused protests and rioting in Baltimore in April, can galvanize the Democratic-controlled state Assembly into passing police reforms that have stalled in the statehouse.

Maryland is among a number of states grappling with reforms amid allegations of police brutality, especially against black men.

Initial testimony before the 20-member panel centered on diversity in police staffing. Officials from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said 51 percent of Baltimore officers were white, while the city is 63 percent black.

"Obviously we're missing something in ethnic and diversity training based on many of the outcomes in the state," said Senator Joan Carter-Conway, a panelist from Baltimore.

The working group will hold public hearings through the summer on such issues as police training, an oversight board for some investigations and a current law that gives police special rights.

Gray died from a spinal injury a week after being arrested on April 12. Six officers have been indicted, with one facing a second-degree murder charge, and the U.S. Justice Department is investigating Baltimore police over their use of force.

Baltimore has seen a sharp upturn in murders since Gray's death, with 42 recorded in May, the highest monthly total since 1990.

Police have blamed the surge on drug turf wars fueled by pharmacy looting and break-ins after Gray's death. They have asked for more federal help to deal with the crime wave.

Reporting by Donna Owens; Editing by Ian Simpson

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