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Police transparency advocates push bill to ease public release of officer discipline records in Maryland

Advocates for police accountability and transparency in Baltimore and across the state urged legislators Tuesday in Annapolis to pass a bill giving police administrators the discretion to release disciplinary and internal affairs records when they deem it appropriate.

Currently, state law precludes the release of such documents under the Maryland Public Information Act, categorizing them as “personnel records” that are not subject to public review. The advocates said that provision wrongly helps cover up corruption, allows bad cops to keep their jobs and makes it possible for patterns of police abuse to go unchecked for decades.

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Del. Erek Barron, a Prince George’s County Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said police officers have tremendous power in Maryland, and “that power should be coupled with an appropriate level of accountability” to ensure citizens get answers when they raise complaints.

“We cannot have accountability without transparency,” Barron told his colleagues on the Health and Government Operations Committee.

Others spoke in opposition to the bill, or submitted testimony in opposition to it. Michael Young, second vice president of the Maryland State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, wrote that it “is a settled matter of policy that personnel records are to remain confidential” and that the “personal nature of these records is a right of privacy that public employees deserve.”

Matt Jablow, a Baltimore Police spokesman, declined to comment on the bill on behalf of the department. Mayor Catherine Pugh said Tuesday that City Solicitor Andre Davis had “no concerns” with the bill.

Maryland courts have repeatedly upheld the state’s right to withhold such documents under current law, determining that most complaints and internal affairs investigations are related to discipline and therefore constitute “personnel records.”

Maryland is one of more than 20 states that shield the personnel and disciplinary records of police officers from public disclosure.

But the landscape is changing. A new state law in California opened such investigative records to members of the public for the first time. And New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill — head of the largest police department in the nation — wrote an opinion piece in the New York Daily News last week in which he argued that New York law must be changed to allow for the release of such records.

“This law must be changed so the NYPD can publicly disclose discipline information. The best proposal would make public an officer’s name, charges, documents and outcomes after the completion of a process,” he wrote. “This information would be published online, foregoing the need for a public information request, and would feature both NYPD and Civilian Complaint Review Board discipline cases.”

The issue has become particularly contentious in Baltimore in recent years in light of the convictions of eight members of the Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force on federal racketeering charges. Leaked documents showed that some of those officers had histories of discipline within the department.

Last year, after the GTTF convictions, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said that “the issue of disclosure and transparency warrants a fresh look.”

Baltimore prosecutors told members of a state commission investigating the GTTF scandal Monday that they are working more closely with police to review internal affairs records of police officers. However, public defenders in the city have long contended that prosecutors and the Police Department have worked together to withhold such records from them, even when they include information that might be relevant to the criminal cases brought against defenders’ clients.

At Tuesday’s hearing, those speaking in favor of the bill included residents from across the state who had bad experiences with police, mothers who said their children were abused or had their cases mishandled, and representatives of minority police associations and civil rights organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

George Buntin, who sits on the Civilian Review Board in Baltimore, which reviews civilian complaints against officers, described cases where a police officer pulled a gun on two teens, and a team of officers trashed the home of an elderly woman — with the public never receiving an explanation as to how complaints about the incidents were handled.

“These are not criminals that come to us. These are regular everyday citizens,” Buntin said.

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De’Auntte Griffin-Dezurn, whose 14-year-old son Danshaun Wells was killed after being struck by a vehicle in Linthicum in 2016, described arriving on the street and being distraught, and an officer screaming at her in racist and disrespectful terms of get her car out of the area.

She called it “mind-boggling” she was never informed of how her various complaints about the situation were resolved.

“We need to know,” she said.

Toni Holness, public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland, said the current law acts as a “veil of secrecy” behind which police officers are allowed to hide.

Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee, said passage of the bill would make the state and the city safer.

“We have to be more open and transparent,” Scott said. “We have to provide our citizens a way to hold their police officers accountable while being fair to [the officers] as well.”

Opposing the bill were various representatives of police and sheriffs groups, and of unions representing the state’s public employees.

A union official said the bill “goes too far” because it opens internal disciplinary cases — like those about insubordination, or squabbles between officers — to public scrutiny when they are clearly personnel matters.

A representative for the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association said internal affairs investigators often get witnesses and other law enforcement officers to provide information by promising confidentiality.

Proponents of the bill far outnumbered the opponents.

Beyond residents and civil liberties advocates, the bill is supported by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which represents news media throughout the state, including The Baltimore Sun.

Rebecca Snyder, the association’s executive director, wrote in comments to the committee that the bill is “straightforward” and “would bring needed transparency into complaints of police misconduct.”

She said reporters have complained about agencies abusing the “personnel record” preclusion under the law, and the bill would make it more difficult for police agencies to “sweep internal investigations and complaints aside.”

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“There is a compelling public interest in the investigation and discipline of police accused of misconduct,” Snyder said. “Marylanders have the right to know how they are being policed. Transparency builds the public trust, and citizens should be able to know the results and process sparked by complaints of police misconduct.”

Throughout the hearing, legislators on the committee asked a few questions but did not reveal their positions on the bill.

Barron, the bill’s sponsor, said he is hopeful it will pass.

“It feels like there’s good momentum,” he said, “but often that’s when things become toughest.”

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