Maryland Judiciary defends decision to remove police officers' names from public online court database

Maryland’s Judiciary on Friday defended a decision to remove the names of police officers and other law enforcement authorities from the state’s searchable public online court database, saying the change was made in response to “safety concerns raised by law enforcement.”

The change took effect Thursday, following a decision by a judicial rules committee last June. Officers’ names no longer appear on cases they were involved with, and searches using an officer’s name cannot be performed.

The judiciary did not answer questions about removing officers’ names but said in a statement that it reflected a balance of “the public’s interest in access to court information with our equally important obligation to protect personal identifying information about potential misuse.”

“The process for making these changes … were made transparently, through a process open to the public and press,” the unsigned statement said. “As always, the judiciary welcomes input from all stakeholders.”

But police in Anne Arundel County, who acknowledged lobbying for a change in how their names are displayed in the database, said the move went too far.

“I don’t know why everything has been taken out. That’s not what we wanted,” said Lt. Ryan Frashure, the department spokesman. “All we asked for was no first names.”

Baltimore police and the Maryland State Police said they had not lobbied for such a change, and the city Police Department said they did not agree with it.

A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan said: “Public information should be public. End of story.”

The judiciary stressed that the information was only removed from remote access online and could still be accessed in person at courthouse kiosks. At Baltimore Circuit Court on Friday, no kiosk was available, and the archaic computer program in use at the kiosks does not have the same searchable features as the online database.

Agencies that use the information on a daily basis such as the Maryland Public Defender’s Office said they were not aware the change was occurring. Melissa Rothstein, a spokeswoman for the public defender’s office, said her agency was notified last week that there would be changes, “but we did not know the scope of those changes or that any publicly available information would be limited.”

“We are very concerned about the removal of officers’ names as witnesses from case search,” Rothstein said. “It will inhibit our ability to effectively represent our clients across the state, and, particularly in Baltimore City, it will impede the current efforts to improve transparency, which the federal [Gun Trace Task Force] convictions as well as the consent decree confirmed are urgently needed.”

The Maryland Judiciary Case Search database contains information about court cases, including information about defendants, the charges they face, the names of prosecutors and defense attorneys, and law enforcement officers who were involved in the arrest. It’s considered an integral tool for members of the public, lawyers and journalists.

Case Search has been particularly useful following the federal indictments and convictions of members of the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force. It allowed the public and others to track cases involving the officers and search for links with other officers and cases. It helped track cases involving the officers that had upcoming hearings or that were poised to be overturned because of the officers’ involvement. The Baltimore state’s attorney’s office has not provided updates on such cases since early December.

The changes to case search were approved last June by the judiciary’s standing committee on rules of practice and procedure, which is comprised of various stakeholders in the legal community. That panel could consider changes to its decision, and is next scheduled to meet next on March 9.

The committee’s annual report from last year shows that the change was made by eliminating a clause in the section “Access to Judicial Records,” which said, “Unless shielded by a protective order, the name, office address, office telephone number and office e-mail address, if any, relating to law enforcement officers, other public officials or employees acting in their official capacity, and expert witnesses, may be remotely accessible.”

It was unclear whether the change was debated — the rules committee has not posted minutes of its meetings since April 2016.

Police in Anne Arundel County say they began lobbying for a change in how officers’ names were displayed in case search in 2015. Previously, they said, an officer’s first initial and last name appeared in arrests listed online. But something changed in the database to include an officer’s entire first name.

“We had officers coming to us saying, ‘Hey, why is our full name coming up in Case Search?’ We brought it to the attention of the clerk’s office,” said Cpl. O'Brien Atkinson, the union president. But, Atkinson said, “at no time did anybody with the [Fraternal Order of Police] or the department lobby or try to have officers’ full names removed.”

Atkinson said officers were worried that criminals might be able to use full names from Case Search as a clue to locate where an officer lives. That hasn’t happened during the past two years when the full names were listed, but he called the measure precautionary.

“Waiting until something happens would be terribly irresponsible,” Atkinson said. “What could happen could be pretty dire, and we have a responsibility to protect our protectors.”

Both Atkinson and Frashure, the department spokesman, said the last name of an arresting officer should be listed online. They say the database also should show an officers’ rank, but only an initial of the first name.

In Baltimore County, officers have a union agreement that prohibits the release of their first names. They are identified, even when being commended, by their first initial and last name.

Baltimore police said they didn’t lobby for a change and “really don’t see why they got rid of what was already publicly available.”

“We use it too,” chief spokesman T.J. Smith said of the data.

The disappearance of officers’ names prompted concerns from media advocates, attorneys and public officials.

“If you’re monitoring arrest history, if you’re looking for patterns, the officer history is pretty critical,” said Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association. “With what we’re seeing, especially in recent events in Baltimore, it seems so short-sighted and ill conceived that they’re taking out officer names at this point, and I don’t really know what prompted that rule.”

Common Cause of Maryland called the move “incredibly disconcerting.”

“At any point in time, this would be cause for concern, but in the context of the just concluded [Gun Trace Task Force trial] this move is egregious and must be overturned,” the watchdog organization said.

Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott wrote on Twitter that the change was “just insane and needs to be changed back immediately.”

“Our police problems will not be cured by less transparency,” defense attorney C. Justin Brown wrote on Twitter.

Two candidates for Baltimore state’s attorney also weighed in. Defense attorney Ivan Bates wrote: “This rule change is just wrong, this change only hurts everyone involved in the Criminal justice system, police need to rebuild the relationship with the community and this change impedes that.”

“This is the opposite of the kind of transparency Baltimore needs right now to rebuild trust, especially when it comes to police officers,” said attorney Thiru Vignarajah. “The committee should reverse this rule change as soon as possible.”

Maryland’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists said the change was a “step backward for transparency and accountability in Maryland.”

“We strongly urge the Maryland Judiciary and the Court of Appeals Standing Committee on Rules and Practice and Procedure, for the good of the public, to reverse this change as soon as possible,” the media organization said in a statement.

The federal court database, known as PACER, does not allow users to search by officers and agents involved in cases. That system does allow users to download all documents related to a case.

Other states have tried to make officers harder to identify in public records. The Virginia Senate voted two years ago to conceal the names of all police officers, exempting them from public information laws. The vote came in response to work by The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, which was investigating cases of officers who got in trouble but were able to find new jobs in law enforcement. A House committee later quashed the bill.

Baltimore police in 2009 stopped releasing the names of officers involved in shootings, saying officers faced potential safety issues. Under pressure, they revised that policy and now generally release officer names within 48 hours of a shooting.

“Transparency is much like every other paradigm on Earth: too little of it’s a bad thing; at times, too much of it is a bad thing,” Anne Arundel Police Chief Tim Altomare said.

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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