Six years ago in Princess Anne, Teleta Dashiell heard something she hadn't expected from a Maryland State Police sergeant. Apparently unaware that the phone hadn't disconnected after he left a message on Ms. Dashiell's home answering machine asking her to contact him concerning a case, Sgt. John Maiello was recorded speaking unkindly to a fellow officer about Ms. Dashiell, who is African-American, including twice using a racial slur.
Ms. Dashiell was naturally upset. She complained to police and was informed that an investigation would take place but was never told of its outcome, only that the recording had been reviewed and "appropriate disciplinary action was taken against Sergeant Maiello and documented in his personnel file." No further details were provided. The American Civil Liberties Union became involved, and a Public Information Act request was filed — to no avail.
This month, a majority of the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in the case, siding with the police that the complaint and its administrative resolution are considered personnel matters that are exempt under Maryland's public information statute. We might be inclined to agree had this been an undocumented accusation that proved untrue, but it obviously wasn't. The officer in question was surely found in violation of his duties, but was his punishment adequate? There's no way to know.
And that's the rub. For all the talk in recent months about the problem of police misconduct and how an investment in body cameras or other reforms could address this growing concern, what good are any of these actions if average citizens are never told how proven cases of misconduct are resolved? How can the police — or frankly, any government employer — be judged by the public if any action by a public employee short of criminal behavior is addressed in absolute secrecy? In a dissent written by Judge Shirley M. Watts and joined by Clayton Greene Jr. (the only two African-American judges on the seven-member court, incidentally), the judges observed that the public has a right to know the outcome of the disciplinary case for this very reason — to be able to judge the employer, if not the employee.
"The administration of the discipline is an action of — and thus reflects the judgment of — the law enforcement agency, not the officer," Judge Watts wrote. "Thus, a record of discipline based on a sustained complaint against a law enforcement officer is not a personnel record; instead, it is among the very types of document that the Public Information Act is designed to make available to the public: a document that reflects how a public agency responds to an employee's proven misconduct."
The ACLU has vowed to seek a remedy from the Maryland General Assembly next January asking for legislation shutting down the personnel exemption in disciplinary cases. We are inclined to agree. Although there are legitimate moments when personnel matters do deserve to be kept confidential — routine employee evaluations, for instance, or unproven allegations of misconduct — this is clearly not one of them. Just put yourself in Ms. Dashiell's shoes after listening to her answering machine (which, in addition to the sergeant's slurs, included the snickers of another state police employee in the background): Does she not deserve to know whether her complaint was taken seriously?
There are occasions when names can be excised, information about investigations withheld to protect witnesses or other allowances made. But on balance, it's essential that the state police and other agencies take the side of transparency over secrecy. Their ultimate employers are the citizens of this state who deserve to know what's going on in the government they've elected and which their tax dollars have financed.
We believe that police misconduct is rare and that the officer involved in the Dashiell case (who has likely gained far more unwanted notoriety as a result of litigation than he ever would have had the MSP simply come clean in the first place) is not typical. But if the public is never informed exactly how legitimate complaints how handled, how can the public trust be restored? It is secrecy as much as the actual misconduct that undermines the relationship between the community and law enforcement. It isn't just aggrieved citizens who benefit from a strengthened Public Information Act, it's the credibility and reputation of the honest and hardworking men and women of the Maryland State Police and other police agencies who stand to gain the most.