Lawmakers in the Maryland General Assembly are considering opening up internal affairs complaints and disciplinary records of police officers in the state to public scrutiny.
Most complaints against officers and records from police department disciplinary decisions would become accessible using a Maryland Public Information Act request under the proposed “Anton’s Law.” It’s named for Anton Black, a young man who died in custody on the Eastern Shore in 2018.
A version of the legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jill P. Carter of Baltimore, won the backing Thursday of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in a party-line vote.
Carter and other backers said secrecy surrounding complaints against officers — the majority of which are dismissed without any discipline being meted out — has helped erode trust in law enforcement. Giving the public a look at complaints, and how agencies handled them, would allow residents to judge whether law enforcement is adequately policing itself, supporters of the legislation say.
Disclosing disciplinary records might also root out problem officers who’ve collected similar complaints or bounced between departments while avoiding serious discipline, Carter said. Shining a bit of light on the process “helps us achieve a goal of getting integrity into these police forces,” she said Thursday.
Police union officials and Republican senators countered the change could erode flagging morale among officers and subject decent ones to smear campaigns in which unfounded accusations are publicized.
The bill would remove a confidentiality shield on disciplinary records, including many, though not all, complaints dismissed by a department’s internal process. The bill would also allow the public to find out how — or if — a department punished officers accused of misconduct.
All personnel records of government employees in Maryland, including police disciplinary records and complaints filed against officers, are considered confidential under state law and are broadly exempt from public disclosure.
Under the proposed law, police chiefs and sheriffs could still block the release of records, including materials related to an ongoing criminal investigation. But agencies would need to lay out reasons for those refusals and, as with other public records requests, could be challenged in court.
Previous efforts to open the books on internal affairs records stalled in recent years amid resistance from law enforcement agencies and police unions. Del. Gabriel Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat, proposed the legislation last year and is again sponsoring the bill in the House of Delegates.
The legislation honors Black, 19, who died in the Caroline County town of Greensboro under the weight of three officers holding him down. One of the officers had nearly 30 use-of-force reports from his career in Delaware. Black’s family has struggled to get information about the case, and has advocated for the proposed law.
David Rocah, senior counsel for the ACLU of Maryland, told lawmakers last month that giving the public some access to disciplinary records was “an absolutely necessary first step” toward restoring confidence in law enforcement and rooting out “failures of accountability, either systemically or individually.”
People who file complaints against officers have little ability under the law way to find out how those complaints are handled or whether that officer faced similar prior complaints, Rocah said.
“All the chief can say is, ‘Trust me, we did the right thing,’” Rocah said. “That’s not enough to build trust.”
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When the committee heard testimony last month on the bill, Riverdale Park Police Chief David Morris acknowledged that boosting transparency, accountability and trust in police is an important goal.
“It’s equally important that we protect the officers’ reputations from frivolous-type complaints,” he said.
The proposed law would treat police officers differently from other public employees — and state lawmakers themselves — all of whom would retain the right to keep complaints or disciplinary records confidential, several Republicans argued at a lengthy hearing ahead of Thursday’s vote.
Republicans pressed the committee to include ethics complaints against lawmakers — kept secret unless the General Assembly formally takes action to punish a politician — in the legislation. Keeping it aimed at law enforcement officers, Sen. Michael Hough of Carroll and Frederick counties asserted, suggested “an anti-police agenda.”
Hough said it was “completely hypocritical not to hold ourselves to the same standards.”
Several Democrats expressed tentative support for opening up more personnel and ethics records to public scrutiny, at least in theory. But they dismissed the suggestion as a gambit best handled in separate legislation, and Republican efforts to broaden the bill were shot down on a party-line vote.
Carter noted that a number of other states have long allowed the public some access to internal affairs complaints and disciplinary records.