In Maryland, investigations into police misconduct are shrouded in secrecy. The state’s public information laws treats details of such investigations as personnel records and, therefore, sealed. The outcome of the case and whether the officer is disciplined is the only thing made public. Wonder whether the outcome was just or whether the punishment was too harsh or too light? Well, that’s too bad. Marylanders are not privy to how thoroughly a complaint was investigated and what evidence was considered, which means the police aren’t accountable to anyone but themselves. And we see where that got us in Baltimore where police officers have been allowed to run rogue and abuse power with no repercussions.
The ACLU of Maryland is among several groups pushing state legislation to change the law, one of the most restrictive in the country, and make police conduct more transparent. We urge the legislature to pass the bill and put Maryland among the 27 other states that allow some kind of access to such files. On Jan. 1, California became the latest state to revise its laws to open the records of police shootings, cases involving use of force that result in great bodily harm, and complaints about sexual assault and dishonesty against officers.
In Maryland, citizens can find out the backgrounds of lawyers, doctors and other professionals. The same should be the case for police officers. Citizens have a right to know their cases are taken seriously.
Keeping police discipline behind closed doors is particularly troubling when someone dies in custody, like what happened in September to Anton Black in Greensboro. The families of such victims have every right to know that their loved ones got full justice without having to resort to a lawsuit. Members of the group Coalition for Justice for Anton Black have asked for access to records in his arrest and death, but they are still waiting for an answer. Given the law, we doubt their chances are good. That’s despite several questions that video of his arrest raised, including whether unnecessary force by police led to his death.
Raising more questions about the Eastern Shore town’s ability to handle police discipline cases, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said over the weekend it would investigate the hiring of one of the officers involved in Mr. Black’s apprehension. A spokesman for the agency told The Sun that Thomas Webster IV’s policing history, including uses of excess force, was not sent to the public safety department when state officials were asked to consider granting him police powers in Maryland.
And there are plenty of cases other than Mr. Black’s in which the police have been allowed to hide behind clandestine investigations. The ACLU points to the case of Teleta Dashiell, who filed a complaint against a state police officer in 2009 who, thinking he had hung up the phone, left a voicemail calling her a derogatory, racist name. When asked about the investigation, Ms. Dashiell, who is African American, was told it was a personnel matter and that officials had taken “appropriate” action in the case.
The lack of transparency has also been called out by the U.S. Department of Justice in its investigation around Baltimore policing practices. The federal agency said the law “repeatedly blocked attempts to access information.” In one case, a woman said two Baltimore officers fondled her and called her a junkie and whore. She filed a complaint that languished for so long it was eventually deemed not sustained. This is what happens when police police themselves.
One of the only ways for people to get around the state’s tight transparency environment is to try to seek justice by requesting a federal investigation. But as the ACLU points out, the Department of Justice can’t investigate every time there are troubling patterns of police abuse.
The police will say that too much disclosure will threaten officer safety, privacy and reputation. Twenty-seven other states beg to differ. There is a way to be transparent and still offer protections to officers. The ACLU and other groups — including the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and Jews United for Justice — support certain exemptions to disclosure, such as cases in which making records public would interfere in an investigation, invade someone’s privacy or put someone in danger. This should address officer concerns.
The push for opening up police files comes as video cameras and social media have exposed abusive tactics used by police in Baltimore around the country — deepening an already strong mistrust between the community and law enforcement. Maryland needs to change its law to rebuild that trust.