Here's what transparency for Baltimore police discipline would mean

In the wake of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force debacle, Attorney General Brian E. Frosh says the state should take a”fresh look” at transparency and disclosure around the police discipline process. City Solicitor Andre Davis says Mayor Catherine Pugh will introduce legislation to do just that. Given that at least three of those who pleaded guilty or were convicted in the scandal had been investigated previously by Internal Affairs, had gone before police trial boards, and/or had been the subject of misconduct lawsuit settlements, it’s clear that the current system in which such records are shielded from disclosure by state law is not working — at least not in Baltimore.

Police officers are public employees. They act on the public’s behalf, and it is the public’s business when they commit misconduct. Just as we have the right to know how much we pay them, we also should have the right to know when they are accused of wrongdoing, how those allegations are investigated, whether they are sustained and what consequences flow from them. The lack of such transparency has clearly left us with insufficient checks on police officers who abuse their power and on their colleagues who are too willing to look the other way. Most states allow public disclosure of police disciplinary records, and Maryland should, too.

Full transparency will be difficult to achieve. Police unions have been extremely influential in Annapolis, even in the post-Freddie Gray era, and they have been successful in keeping such records shrouded. Until recently, even those who filed complaints were not allowed to know what became of them, and Baltimore police still don’t say what discipline, if any, results from such cases, notwithstanding a 2016 state law requiring it. But there are interim steps that would make a difference.

For starters, Maryland could strengthen the standards for when and how defense attorneys are granted access to internal affairs files for sustained complaints against officers. As it stands, prosecutors are supposed to tell defense attorneys of the existence of sustained complaints that could impeach an officer’s integrity, and defense attorneys are allowed to request access to those files. But there’s too much room for judgment both in the state’s attorney’s office and among judges, and it is rare that defendants are able to see such files, much less introduce them in court. At the very least, the law should guarantee defense attorneys the right to review all sustained complaints so they can make an argument to a judge that they should be admissible.

And Mayor Pugh can take steps that don’t require the legislature’s approval. The police department posts the schedule of trial boards, which are public, but only by the case number, not by the name of the officer. Changing that would be an easy way to improve transparency. The city’s Law Department now maintains a searchable database of lawsuits against police officers that contains a general description of the allegations and the disposition. But it only goes back to 2014, and it’s not easy to find. It should be more complete and accessible. Finally, the city could and should drop its practice of requiring those who settle police misconduct suits to sign gag orders prohibiting them from discussing their cases publicly. Maintaining such a policy makes it look like the city has something to hide.

The counter argument to increased disclosure of disciplinary records is that the public isn’t capable of putting them in context, that allowing disclosure even of cases in which officers are not found to be at fault would diminish trust in the police. This is a corollary to the Fraternal Order of Police’s objections to putting civilians on trial boards on the grounds that only fellow officers are capable of understanding police work and rendering judgment on it. It’s not convincing in either context. Public trust in the police is already diminished precisely because the profession has treated itself as unanswerable to the people it serves.

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