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Md. demands public access to police misconduct investigations

Marylanders cannot continue to be denied the basic transparency into police misconduct records that would allow them to hold their local departments accountable.

Our constituents want effective constitutional policing that reduces violence in their communities. But they also want — and deserve — transparency and accountability. The communities officers are sworn to protect, and whose taxpayer dollars support law enforcement, deserve to know that their local police departments are investigating misconduct complaints diligently and equitably.

In Montgomery County, we are fighting for the Law Enforcement Trust and Transparency Act, which would require independent investigations of police-involved deaths. This is needed because there is a serious lack of confidence that law enforcement can police itself — especially when the stakes are the highest and a resident has lost his or her life.

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In 2016, the ACLU of Maryland released a report showing that between 2010 and 2015, at least 130 people across our state — the vast majority of them black, and too many unarmed — died in police encounters. Eleven of those deaths were in Montgomery County, and 30 were in Baltimore City.

Misconduct settlements involving Baltimore police officers have cost the city more than $5 million since 2011. Victims and an attorney talk about their experiences with the issue. (Algerina Perna and Christopher T. Assaf/Baltimore Sun)

In the city, residents are fighting for a truly independent and effective Civilian Review Board that can thoroughly investigate the hundreds of police misconduct complaints lodged each year. Every day, residents are denied information about how the Baltimore Police Department investigates such complaints. In fact, the Department of Justice noted that "community members are unable to obtain information about BPD's complaint and discipline systems at almost every step in the process."

Other limits reach throughout the state. Currently, under the Maryland Public Information Act, police misconduct complaint files are considered protected "personnel records" that may never be disclosed under any circumstances. This means that if the police department fails to discipline an officer for misconduct, and the community calls for the department to explain its decision, the department is categorically barred from revealing anything in the complaint file.

We can fix this problem. We must fix this problem. The General Assembly is currently considering several bills to allow greater transparency in the way law enforcement handles allegations of misconduct. Regardless of what bill makes it through to final passage, we urge state lawmakers to honor the resounding and unambiguous demand we have heard from our communities: We must have access to investigations into all police misconduct.

As federal authorities continue to probe Baltimore’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, police commanders are pledging internal investigations aimed at finding and rooting out corruption.

This basic level of transparency is necessary for both individuals who file police misconduct complaints and the public, which needs to know what actions police take in their name. This transparency would help our communities know that their complaints of police brutality and misconduct are taken seriously by the officers sworn to protect them.

The basis for any healthy relationship is trust. Research consistently shows that communities of color have higher levels of distrust in law enforcement — often for good reason. A Pew Research poll, for example, found that only 14 percent of blacks had high confidence in police and 31 percent of Latinx people did.

Transparency would go a long way toward bridging this divide. It has been proven time and time again that crime reduction is tied to police departments' ability to be transparent and open with residents, who are more willing to work with officers they trust.

Marylanders cannot continue to be denied the basic transparency that would allow them to hold their local departments accountable. It is time for Maryland to do better.

Brandon Scott (Brandon.Scott@baltimorecity.gov) is a member of the Baltimore City Council. Will Jawando(Councilmember.Jawando@MongtomeryCountyMD.gov) is a Montgomery County Council member.

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