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Md. Lawmakers should make police discipline records public

Senators and delegates who represent Baltimore residents in the Maryland General Assembly talk a good game about restoring the public’s faith and confidence in the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). If they were serious about it, however, they would sponsor a local bill this session lifting the shroud of secrecy under state law that protects the disciplinary records of BPD officers from public scrutiny.

It is that shroud of secrecy that allowed police misconduct and outright corruption within the BPD to flourish. Bad officers who should have been fired weren’t. Sometimes it was because of a disciplinary system heavily weighted in favor of accused officers, sometimes it was because of managerial indifference or worse. Eventually, there were so many bad officers that the situation spun out of control.

Corruption was a cancer that metastasized because the public was kept in the dark. Police union officials will tell you that the reason the law secretes the results of disciplinary actions is to spare accused officers from embarrassment. That is not true. The reason is to keep citizens from finding out about too-lenient discipline and demanding reform.

Ideally, reasonable transparency of disciplinary records should apply to all police departments in Maryland. Police officers, unlike other public employees, are empowered to use force to place citizens under arrest and restrain their liberty. Their testimony can result in searches of homes and send people to prison for years. With such extraordinary power should come commensurate accountability.

It now appears that a statewide bill is not going to happen, however, because the political support is not there. And, in all fairness, Baltimore is where the crisis exists. The collapse of discipline in the BPD is primarily a Baltimore problem, and it is reasonable to expect elected officials who represent the citizens of Baltimore to take charge of trying to fix it.

Unlike the police departments of counties and other cities, the BPD is a state agency. The General Assembly, rather than the City Council, enacts the “public local laws” that govern the BPD. The statute that prohibits public disclosure of police disciplinary records is known as a “public general law,” applicable statewide.

In a 1989 case, the Maryland Court of Appeals stated that the General Assembly can make an exception to the provisions of a public general law that applies to the BPD as well as to other police departments by enacting a public local law applicable only to the BPD. That is of enormous practical significance.

By custom, a local law is subject to “local courtesy.” That means that enactment is all but assured if the law has the support of the senators and delegates who represent the city or county. It would be an unimaginable slight to the city if a local bill sponsored by city senators and delegates that only affected the BPD is defeated, especially if city officials endorsed the bill as an important step in restoring the confidence of city residents in the BPD.

I drafted a bill allowing public inspection of certain disciplinary records of BPD officers to try to get the ball rolling. If interested, legislators may contact me at the email address listed below and I will send them a copy. Free of charge.

The bill limits public inspection to complaints of dishonesty or untruthfulness and physical or verbal abuse of citizens. Those are the types of misconduct most relevant to citizens’ interests in holding the police commissioner accountable for ensuring that officers perform their duties fairly and justly. Other disciplinary matters would remain confidential.

I have no pride of authorship, and I am sure that the General Assembly’s bill drafters will have their own ideas on how such a bill should be written. But I wanted to minimize excuses for not getting anything done this session by starting the drafting process.

There has been a tendency among legislators who represent city residents, both in the General Assembly and on the City Council, to try to duck responsibility for repairing the BPD. Well, adding some transparency to disciplinary actions taken by the BPD is something that the senators and delegates who represent Baltimore citizens can do.

They don’t need the governor, and they don’t need the leaders of the General Assembly. It is time to stop waiting for help and do something. If the senators and delegates from the city join with city officials in seeking enactment of this legislation, they should be able to get it passed. In any event, there is no excuse for not trying.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

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