Three strikes against Md. government accountability

If you live in Baltimore and suffered a medical emergency that required immediate assistance or called 911 to report a fire, how long might you have to wait before a city fire truck or emergency medical technician showed up at your door? What exactly happened at Mondawmin Mall two years ago when police and local residents squared off, a confrontation that escalated to riots, fires and looting after the death of Freddie Gray? And what do the Baltimore County police body cameras show about recent police-involved shootings, including the two in which suspects have been killed so far this year?

Right now, those questions can't be fully answered despite the best efforts of reporters working for The Baltimore Sun. That's because in each case, whether it's City Hall, the Maryland Transit Administration or the Baltimore County Police Department, officials have refused to release the requested records. The excuses behind the stonewalling vary, but the combined effect is to suggest a pattern — state and local public agencies are sidestepping their obligation to be held accountable, and they are suffering little to no legal, financial or political fallout for their intransigence.

As popular as it's become for elected officials to use words like "transparency" and "accountability" these days, it doesn't do much good if, when push comes to shove, they hide behind loopholes in the federal Freedom of Information Act or Maryland Public Information Act or similar laws. Granted, there are times when it's fair to withhold information — in an ongoing criminal investigation, for example, when disclosing the names of witnesses might compromise their safety — but there are also times when government chooses the course of least resistance and sits on information simply because it casts officials in a negative light. Which is going on in these three examples? You make the call.

In the case of 911 calls to the city fire department and its response times, The Sun's inquiry was recently joined by members of the City Council. They, too, see the need to gauge the department's performance and view statistics that have been made available in years past. Are stations adequately staffed? Do crews show up at the wrong doorsteps? The Sun's Yvonne Wenger was told the documents to answer such questions weren't available. That strains credibility — or at least suggests the agency is in some serious disarray.

In the case of the Mondawmin surveillance cameras, the excuses are even thinner. The MTA, which operates the cameras that caught much of the run-up to the 2015 unrest, is hiding behind a national security argument, claiming that any release of the two-year-old tapes would compromise the integrity of the Department of Homeland Security-funded surveillance system and poses a "security risk." Essentially, the agency is implying that terrorists are just waiting to find out how well the Mondawmin cameras pan and zoom and exactly where they are located before they hatch their nefarious plans to attack the westbound Number 105 bus from Cedonia to the Mondawmin Metro Station. Or could it be that the MTA would like to escape public oversight regarding this particularly awful event? Given its impact on Baltimore and the state, sitting on the footage strikes the American Civil Liberties Union as "insane and totally unacceptable." We agree.

We understand that the issue can be more complicated in the case of police body camera footage when it involves an ongoing investigation. Yet it's striking how little the county has released from the police shootings so far (one out of four this year) compared to city police who have provided the public with footage from all three police shootings since body cameras were adopted a year ago. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a possible candidate for governor next year, has made a lot of political hay on body cameras and accountability, and former Police Chief Jim Johnson touted a policy of transparency in releasing video early and often. Things appear to have changed since Mr. Kamenetz forced Chief Johnson out. Why? Whose interest does that serve?

In some quarters, self-serving pols belittle such inquiries as "fake news" and count on the public to have short memories or distrust journalists. Don't fall for it. Members of the public need to join this fight and and call on their representatives in the State House, City Hall and in Towson to do what ought to be any government official's first and most powerful instinct — to disclose, disclose, disclose.

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