The City of Baltimore has been selling records containing personal information about its employees, including home addresses and driver's license numbers, even though the city's own lawyers say the information cannot legally be disclosed under state law.
The information is contained in police reports of vehicle accidents, stored in an online database by a contractor for the city and available to anyone who requests them for $14 apiece. The Sun bought half a dozen reports for accidents involving city vehicles and saw they had personal information about the city-employed drivers — despite the government's obligation to remove those details.
Two of the six reports were bought after city officials were made aware of the situation. One report gave the home address of a fire prevention inspector, and the other included the driver's license number of a police officer.
"We need to fix it," said Anthony Guglielmi, chief police spokesman. "We should not be giving a private vendor police reports with personally identifying information of government employees."
The Police Department produces handwritten reports summarizing the details of motor vehicle accidents to which officers respond, and since last year it has sold the reports online through Police Reports.US, a company in Mooresville, N.C. Purchasers are often accident victims, lawyers, insurance companies or others involved in the incident, but the reports are available to anyone who chooses to pay for them. The city, which gets $10 for each report the company sells, has earned nearly $600,000 so far from the sale of the reports, officials say.
The reports typically contain details about the drivers and victims of vehicle accidents, including home addresses and other information typically considered public under the law. For the hundreds of wrecks involving city vehicles, however, the reports often have the same personal details about the city worker who was behind the wheel at the time — details which are specifically prohibited from release under Maryland's Public Information Act.
The act, which governs the disclosure of public records in Maryland, generally assumes that documents created by the government are open to the public. But a section of the law designed to prevent unwarranted invasions of privacy specifically excludes the release of private information about public employees, including addresses and telephone numbers.
The head of the city's police union said he was glad the Police Department is addressing the issue but thought it was "too bad" there's a problem to correct in the first place. "I do think there is a level of privacy that's needed and necessary, given the type of jobs we have," Robert F. Cherry said.
In response to questions from The Sun, Guglielmi said the department had "inadvertently uploaded" reports containing information about public employees due to a technical error. He could not say how many such reports have been for sale to the public.
Maj. Joseph Smith, who commands the department's Central Records Section, will institute changes, Guglielmi said. He added that the department will add a layer of oversight before reports are sent to Police Reports.US and that reports already posted are being modified, starting with the most recent ones.
Stuart Watson, vice president of Police Reports.US, said his company does not modify any of the reports it receives from Baltimore or the 850 other municipalities and government agencies whose reports it markets. The company has a five-year contract with the city.
"We characterize ourselves as an electronic postman," he said. "We don't reach in and grab reports from the City of Baltimore's records management system. They have to actively send reports to us. We receive them, index them and place them online for distribution."
In addition to being for sale through Police Reports.US, the vehicle accident reports can be obtained from the city under the state's Public Information Act. On June 7, The Sun filed a request with the Police Department for five accident reports that involved city vehicles. Late last month, four of the reports were provided with black ink obscuring the public employees' driver's license numbers and home addresses. (In the fifth, the city vehicle was parked, so the report had no driver information.)
A Police Department lawyer, Christopher R. Lundy, wrote in an accompanying letter that the department partially redacted the records to allow public access "to the fullest extent" possible under state law. He noted that private details about government employees, such as home address and phone number, could not be disclosed. He said the law also prohibited the release of their driver's license numbers.
When asked why the city is selling the records without making redactions required by the Public Information Act, City Solicitor George Nilson, the city's chief lawyer, said he was "not aware of that." Nilson, who oversees all city attorneys, including those at the Police Department, referred questions to Mark J. Dimenna, a municipal lawyer who frequently handles public records requests.
Dimenna said Lundy was correct in holding back the information from The Sun. "I agree with Chris [Lundy] that the home address and phone numbers of city employees has to be redacted," he said.
But Dimenna said he could shed no light on why reports were being sold online without any information being held back. "What they do at the Police Department, I don't have any knowledge of," he said.