Gov. Wes Moore’s choice to lead the Maryland State Police, veteran trooper Lt. Col. Roland Butler, faces uncertain odds in his quest for Senate confirmation, as time is starting to run short.

Butler faced challenging questions in a Senate Executive Nominations Committee confirmation hearing Monday night, with senators probing whether a longtime insider is the right person to lead an agency in need of reform.

“I couldn’t tell you tonight if he’d had the votes,” Sen. Pamela Beidle, the committee chair, said afterward. “If we’d called for the vote tonight, I don’t know if he had them.”

Moore nominated Butler to take over a department facing challenges including a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation into potentially discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, as well as a lawsuit from Black troopers alleging discrimination in disciplinary decisions.

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And the state police have been criticized for sexist and racist “challenge coins” being exchanged among troopers and racist imagery on a target at a shooting range.

In addition, The Baltimore Banner has reported that multiple state police barracks have implemented points-based quota systems to reward troopers for actions including traffic stops and arrests.

Quotas are illegal under Maryland law and Butler — who previously oversaw all barracks as director of field operationshas said he doesn’t support them and did not know about them until the news reports.

Over the course of about 40 minutes on Monday, Butler pledged to senators that he’d foster better communications within the Maryland State Police and take complaints and concerns seriously.

Butler said the vast majority of troopers serve with “dignity and integrity” while keeping Marylanders safe. “But throughout its history, the department has also grappled with a range of deeply troubling issues: bias, discrimination, inappropriate behavior, an inequitable system of career advancement that has held many qualified troopers back in their careers,” he said.

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Roland Butler, who has been nominated to be superintendent of the Maryland State Police, speaks during a press conference at the State House in Annapolis on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. He's flanked by Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller, left, and Gov. Wes Moore, right.
Roland Butler, who has been nominated to be superintendent of the Maryland State Police, speaks during a press conference at the State House in Annapolis on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. He's flanked by Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller, left, and Gov. Wes Moore, right. (Pamela Wood/The Baltimore Banner)

“As I stand before you today, let me be very clear: I am absolutely committed to moving the Maryland Department of State Police forward,” Butler said. “I’m committed to deploying my core values to steer the department in a new direction, into a new era.”

In their questions to Butler, some senators seemed to wrestle with whether someone who has been in Maryland State Police leadership for years can be a reformer.

Butler spent more than 28 years in the Maryland State Police, rising through the ranks to become director of the Field Operations Bureau, responsible for overseeing all state police barracks. He retired at the end of 2022, only to return as acting superintendent under Moore.

“Do you feel any responsibility for the ailments of the department? And because of your long association and history and career, how does that make you unique and your ability to be a change agent in the future?” asked Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Butler responded that he’s seen the department inside and out, “good and bad,” throughout his career.

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He said he’d use that knowledge to build a team and organization to ensure problems of the past aren’t repeated: “I know I can make it better. I’m willing to work with anyone to make it better.”

Butler said he’s made difficult decisions in his career, including disciplining troopers and handling complaints. In response to questions about complaints regarding his leadership at a Prince George’s County barracks earlier in his career, Butler said he took over a situation with a lack of discipline, lots of trooper turnover and a subpar building renovation that frustrated troopers.

“I believe in discipline. I believe in correcting behavior and leaving people whole,” Butler said. “I walked into an environment where there was a lack of discipline, a lack of leadership, there was a lack of direction.”

Senators from rural parts of the state questioned Butler about his working relationship with local sheriffs, and encouraged him to share the perspectives of rural law enforcement with the governor.

Another senator pressed Butler on the need to improve diversity within the ranks. Butler said that of 1,400 troopers, only 166 are considered “minority” troopers.

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There are indications that the Moore administration is making a strong effort to get Butler confirmed. Several senators said they’ve appreciated Butler’s candor and attention to detail in one-on-one meetings they’ve had with him.

The Democratic governor’s office released to the press a packet of more than 20 letters of support for Butler, including high-ranking current and former police leaders from across the state.

Many of those who wrote letters went to Annapolis Monday night and sat in the audience as a show of support, including Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Anne Arundel County Police Chief Amal Awad.

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But there have been concerns raised, too. Senators referenced some 30 pages worth of dissenting letters they’ve received, though the committee’s staff said those letters are personnel records that can’t be released to the public.

And on Friday, Butler and Moore met with representatives from a Black troopers’ coalition who have raised concerns. The representatives came out of the meeting indicating they still did not support Butler’s nomination.

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Moore spokesman Carter Elliott IV said in a statement the governor supports his nominee: “Tonight, Lt. Col. Butler outlined his vision for working in partnership with all stakeholders to reform the department by increasing morale, building up trust and committing to address the concerns that have been raised during the nomination process.”

The statement continued: “With three decades of exemplary service in the Maryland Department of State Police, it’s clear Lt. Col. Butler is the best person to move the department forward.”

The position of state police superintendent is a cabinet-level position that requires a confirmation vote from the 47 members of the Maryland Senate. The first step is clearing the 19-member, bipartisan Senate Executive Nominations Committee.

The committee did not vote on Monday, and Beidle said a vote could be possible later in the week.

If a nominee is approved by the committee, they then advance to a vote in the full Senate.

There are just two weeks left for Moore and Butler to get through the confirmation process before the legislature adjourns its 90-day annual session.

Pamela Wood covers Maryland politics and government. She previously reported for The Baltimore Sun, The Capital and other Maryland newspapers. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, she lives in northern Anne Arundel County. 

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