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Time for a 'code of transparency' in policing

If you are a victim of crime in Maryland you rightfully have access to the results of a police department's investigation, unless the crime was committed against you by a police officer. It is beyond comprehension that a community member who files a complaint of police misconduct has no access to records of an investigation where they, or their child, may have been the victim of inappropriate police action. Unfortunately, Maryland's public information law has been interpreted by the

If you are a victim of crime in Maryland, you rightfully have access to the results of a police department's investigation — unless the crime was committed against you by a police officer. It is beyond comprehension that a community member who files a complaint of police misconduct has no access to records of an investigation where they, or their child, may have been the victim of inappropriate police action.

Unfortunately, Maryland's public information law has been interpreted by the courts to fundamentally block transparency and accountability regarding police abuse and misconduct. Current law categorizes complaint investigations under "personnel" matters that cannot be released to the public.

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As the former chief of human resources for the Baltimore Police Department, it is my expert opinion that public access to police conduct records does not violate the rights of police officers. The records in question reflect police behavior as they carry out their duties within community, and in order for the public to have the ability to approve, or disapprove, they must have detailed knowledge of the behavior and the investigative results.

As we continue the daunting and necessary task of police reform, it is important that we protect the rights of our public servants. Specifically, the intimate details contained within a police officer's personnel file must be safeguarded in the same manner as any other employee. However, the bill now being considered in the General Assembly to allow transparency in police misconduct investigations does not jeopardize this protection. This bill is about public police behavior occurring within the communities in which they work.

According to Sir Robert Peel of Great Britain, who is viewed by many of our police leaders as the father of modern policing, the police are the public, and the public are the police. This is principle No. 7 of the nine Peelian Principles. Principle No. 2 states, "To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect."

In short, we exist because of the public and the work we do "for them" should be approved "by them." As such, the public should be informed of all that we do within the community. They must have access to reports of police behavior within the community, good and bad. This level of transparency is not only necessary for securing public respect — trust — but it is their right.

Police leaders have a responsibility first and foremost to the public. It is their responsibility to ensure the highest level of service, which comes in many forms (police availability, responsiveness, providing information and education, investigatory services, crime prevention, victim services and protection from constitutional rights violations). Public cooperation in the form of witnesses is necessary to investigate crimes and ultimately to prevent crime through the capture of habitual criminals.

Where citizens lack trust in their police force, they also lack confidence in coming forward as a witness to violent crime, and in many cases, victims of violent crime fear reporting the crime to police. This severe lack of trust perpetuates violent crime. We see the disastrous and avoidable results of that lack of trust in Baltimore and in cities across the nation.

I have served in three Maryland agencies as a commander, the Maryland State Police as the head of training, the Baltimore Police Department as the Chief of Human Resources and head of training, and the Maryland Transit Administration as the head of Internal Affairs and the Office of Professional Standards. We train our police officers to be accountable servants to the community, and upon leaving the academy, this is who they believe they are.

But because of the "street" policing culture of misconduct cover-ups and lack of accountability, many potentially good police officers are quickly converted to members of a secretive, non-transparent, closed society where "the code of silence" has become their oath of office.

It's time to begin dismantling the "code of silence" and implement a new "code of transparency." This transparency would also go a very long way in improving safety for police officers. When citizens respect their police, they protect their police.

Neill Franklin is executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership; he can be reached at ExecutiveDirector@lawenforcementaction.org.

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