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Activist legal group says it’s making progress in face of Baltimore police stalling over use-of-force records

An activist legal group said it’s begun receiving case files in its fight to pry loose records on Baltimore Police use-of-force cases, but it continues to face significant hurdles.

The Baltimore Action Legal Team has requested files for cases investigated by the department’s Special Investigation Response Team, which handles police-involved shootings but also other serious use-of-force incidents. Because police review the cases for possible criminal conduct, they are not shielded from disclosure like internal affairs cases.

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The group received the first four files this month, though it didn’t come easy.

Matt Zernhelt, who is leading the fight, said the agency took months to compile and review the documents, made inappropriate redactions, and is charging exorbitant fees.

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“BPD has done everything they could’ve done over the past 12 months to stop us from seeing these records,” Zernhelt said.

The records include investigative summaries, reports, photos, detective notes and other documents that make up the case file for an investigation.

Baltimore Police did not respond to a request for comment from its legal affairs division. The Sun is facing similar challenges. A request by the news organization for a body camera clip has been pending for months — the law allows up to 30 days to provide information — while the agency has requested $5,800 for public emails on a particular topic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a backlog of public records requests in most state agencies this year, although the efforts by Baltimore Action Legal Team, or BALT, to get records predated the outbreak.

BALT, along with a group called Open Justice Baltimore, has amassed $22,000 in community contributions to pay BPD’s fees for the documents. Zernhelt said the group is trying to get the money back, claiming damages.

“Open Justice Baltimore sought these files because we believe that investigations into public servants must be conducted with integrity and transparency,” Open Justice Baltimore said in a statement. “Internal police investigations being conducted without community oversight violates the very point of public service. Any time a public servant is under investigation, the community has every right to know.”

The records BALT has received include a 2017 case in which a man was struck with a baton by Officer Kevin Battipaglia. Battipaglia was charged with first-degree assault, but acquitted at trial by a Circuit Court judge.

The records show Battipaglia and a second officer had approached to “clear a corner,” when Battipaglia gave chase to one of the men and knocked him unconscious with his wooden baton. A crowd gathered, and Battipaglia’s body camera recorded him saying to others, “Let’s go,” “What you wanna do,” and “If I’m the bitch, come get it.”

A group of activists has been fighting to get access to Baltimore Police department records involving Officer Kevin Battipaglia, who was charged and acquitted in a use of force case.
A group of activists has been fighting to get access to Baltimore Police department records involving Officer Kevin Battipaglia, who was charged and acquitted in a use of force case. (Baltimore Police handout / HANDOUT)

At trial in late 2018, Battipaglia’s defense attorney argued that the officer’s body camera did not capture the moment of the baton’s impact and a friend of the victim who was also at the scene testified that his view was obstructed. Two years later, Battipaglia remains on the force, suspended with pay, a department spokeswoman said.

The records also include those from the 2017 fatal shooting of Nathaniel Sassafrass, who video shows opened fire and wounded an officer. The documents that were turned over provide no additional insight into the case — it has less information than was provided in a public summary report of the shooting posted by the State’s Attorney’s Office in its decision to clear the officers of wrongdoing.

Also included is a 2017 fatal shooting by an off-duty officer of a man who broke into his home and demanded property at gunpoint. Those records show that police interviewed a teenager who admitted to be part of a burglary crew who had committed a series of break-ins that morning along with the man who was shot.

City lawyers withheld from The Sun summaries of the officer’s two interviews with the criminal investigators, citing the provision of the law that prevents the release of statements given by officers in internal affairs investigations.

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“The public doesn’t have any true window into police accountability,” Zernhelt said. “These reports are the only way to see what the police department is doing on the ground — if changes are actually happening, this is how we can find out.”

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