When the Maryland General Assembly passed the landmark Anton’s Law, it meant to provide transparency to police discipline and bring the state in line with the majority of the country.
But more than two months after it went into effect, some police departments have been refusing to provide information while others claim they must charge high fees to comply.
Baltimore Police, for example, say they intend to provide records but are swamped with requests, and have sent one requester a bill in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In Anne Arundel, the police department’s attorney said she would not release names or badge numbers of officers. Christine Ryder said that the disclosure of officers’ names would have a “chilling effect” in investigations and be contrary to the public interest.
“An Officer’s ability to carry out their sworn duties in our communities and courts of law would be greatly diminished should public trust be similarly lost, particularly in cases where wrongdoing was found to be false or unfounded,” Ryder wrote in response to a request by The Capital Gazette, which is part of Baltimore Sun Media.
Legislators who worked on Anton’s Law said both high fees and denial of records went against the spirit of the legislation.
“I would look at that as willful intent to disobey the law,” Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Howard County Democrat, said after being informed of the positions of police departments.
Within an hour of The Baltimore Sun contacting legislators for this article, Anne Arundel County said it would provide the records. “We’re working to immediately and fully comply with Anton’s Law,” said Jeff Amoros, communications director for County Executive Steuart Pittman.
Pittman, however, last week said the police department would not provide the records or reverse its position on charging requesters hundreds or thousands of dollars for records. The department maintains how its staff decided which records are considered “technical infractions,” a new exemption under Anton’s Law, Pittman said.
An Anne Arundel County police spokesperson issued a statement saying the law is an unfunded mandate creating burdens on staff. The department will likely request more funding in the county budget to hire additional staff, Pittman said.
Under Anton’s Law, record custodians can no longer broadly deny public access to police disciplinary records, including those related to internal affairs and criminal investigations, disciplinary hearings and administrative penalties.
Instead, custodians must offer a specific reason to withhold a record. Among the reasons allowed under the law is if the custodian deems certain information to be contrary to the public interest.
The Baltimore Police Department has not responded to The Sun’s multiple requests under Anton’s Law. The state’s public information law requires agencies to give a response within seven days, and provide records within 30 days, though government agencies routinely ignored those requirements and face no penalty.
Baltimore Police spokeswoman Amanda Krotki said city police intend to comply and have fulfilled some requests already, but said they are bogged down with logistical challenges, which “should not be misinterpreted as resistance or lack of transparency.”
“We are dealing with dozens of individual requests. Each one can range in size and scope from a single document or file to thousands of them. Each file can be an average of 50 to 200 pages,” Krotki said.
Even in the cases where departments say they will provide documents, fees may be a barrier to transparency. The Maryland Public Information Act allows government agencies to charge fees to collect and produce information. Those fees can be waived if the request is being made in the public interest, but agencies have discretion to do so.
The activist legal group Open Justice Baltimore said they have already received a bill in the hundreds of thousands of dollars from the BPD for their Anton’s Law record request, and they filed suit this week to dispute the charges.
“BPD’s refusal to honor the terms of Anton’s Law amounts to outright disrespect of the rule of law and the Maryland taxpayers that fought so hard to pass it,” Open Justice Baltimore said in a statement.
The Baltimore Police Department has previously said it anticipates having to hire contractual staff to process requests, and will pass that cost on to the requester.
Not all requests have been fraught. Baltimore County police promptly provided information on disciplinary cases involving former officer Robert Vicosa, who kidnapped his two children before killing them along with himself and an accomplice.
Howard County police released to The Sun a spreadsheet of cases dating to the 1960s that included officers’ names, allegations and findings. Spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said the department will release documents from individual cases upon request.
Prince George’s County denied a request from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service, with county attorney John Mitchell saying: “There is a common misconception that these records are now open for public review. That is not actually true.” He added that it was “not in the public interest to release these files,” CNS reported in October.
Del. Luke Clippinger, chair of the House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee, said that position was wrong.
“I think we made it pretty clear with what we did last year that it’s in the public interest — the clear intent was to give access to police misconduct records so that people have more confidence that investigations are done well and done properly,” Clippinger said.
Prince George’s County officials now say that they denied the request because it was “overbroad,” and are working to process the request. Spokeswoman Gina Ford said the county plans to provide documents, but that fees will be imposed.
“The County will continue to abide by the MPIA law that states the first two hours to fulfill records requests are free and the subsequent time thereafter will have a fee,” Ford said.
The Capital filed a PIA for records of every active-duty Anne Arundel County police officer who had at least one substantiated administrative or criminal complaint.
The Anne Arundel County police department responded with a spreadsheet that chronicled internal and citizen complaints made against officers from 1987 to 2021, a total of 494 entries.
But to produce the underlying records, Ryder, the Anne Arundel County attorney, said the estimated cost would be between $37,400 to $65,700, plus between $6,100 and $11,200 in copy fees.
Anne Arundel County police denied a request to waive the fee. Ryder wrote the department is not compelled by a public interest in the documents to produce the paperwork for free because the time and effort it would take to release the disciplinary files would “be devoted from other public interest activities.”
When asked to provide disciplinary records for just five county police officers with known criminal and internal complaints, the revised charge was estimated to cost between $6,700 to $8,400, plus between $250 to $500 in copy fees.
While the county executive’s office said police intend to comply with the request, it remains unclear whether the county will continue to insist on the fees.
Atterbeary, the Howard County delegate, said that if agencies don’t comply with the new legislation, they could have funding withheld.
“I don’t think anyone [involved in crafting the legislation] would have imagined any astronomical cost would be passed on to the requesters,” Atterbeary said. “Those nuances are going to have to be looked at next session.”
Sen. Will Smith, a Democrat, agreed, also pointing to conflicts that have arisen over the new independent investigations unit in the Attorney General’s Office that investigates police killings. Some jurisdictions have pushed back.
“We’re going through some growing pains, and it’s going to be up to us in the legislature to see that measures we pass are adhered to by each jurisdiction,” Smith said.