An activist legal group has filed three lawsuits — against the Baltimore Police Department, Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office and Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board — in an attempt to compel the release of police misconduct records.
Baltimore Action Legal Team, along with Open Justice Baltimore, filed the lawsuits Monday and said they are seeking “to promote accountability around local police investigations and improve trust and relationships with law enforcement.”
Maryland has long kept police personnel records closed. Until recent years, even residents who filed complaints against officers were not entitled to learn whether anything came of them. Recent police misconduct scandals have helped expose how complaints and other warning signs were missed, but records remain shielded from the public.
Matthew Zernhelt, Baltimore Action Legal Team’s legal director, said that in his research for the lawsuits, he has found exemptions that provide for certain records to be disclosed.
“As a community lawyering organization, we’ve had the privilege to work with community organizations and advancing their missions, and we’ve been able to look at law in a different way and different vantage point. We found some laws that have been hidden in plain sight,” Zernhelt said in an interview.
Zernhelt filed public records requests seeking redacted officer misconduct files from the police department, use-of-force cases submitted by police to the city prosecutor’s office, and records created by the civilian review board after their review of protected internal police files.
The Civilian Review Board has clashed with the city about records, with the city solicitor’s office drawing the ire of the board in 2018 when it asked members to sign confidentiality agreements.
“We think it’s a conflict of interest to have a shared law department that also has to protect BPD,” Zernhelt said.
Prosecutors indicated they were willing to provide the documents requested from their office, but said they would charge $15,300. They said it was estimated to take more than 400 hours to assemble and prepare the materials.
Police, meanwhile, “all but ignored plaintiff,” the lawsuit says, “only responding to two messages with an ambiguous message and a senseless message.”
“BPD is in blatant violation of the timing requirements imposed by law and has disregarded its responsibilities under the Public Information Act,” the lawsuit says.
Acting City Solicitor Dana Moore said she was not yet aware of the lawsuits and could not immediately comment. A spokeswoman for the State’s Attorney’s Office did not immediately return a request for comment.