State Law Hampers Investigators

By Craig Whitlock and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 2, 2001

When a Prince George's officer shoots or kills someone, an urgent message crackles over the police radio: Call a lawyer.

Under Maryland law, police who use deadly force are not required to tell investigators what happened for at least 10 days. The rule is designed to give officers time to obtain legal counsel before answering any questions that could land them in trouble.

It's a zealously guarded right in state law enforcement circles. In Prince George's, a lawyer or a police union official is always summoned to the scene of a shooting to make sure no one speaks to the officer who pulled the trigger.

The law can make it harder to determine whether a police shooting was justified.

Detectives must rely on physical evidence and witnesses, if any exist, to sort out the sequence of events. And officers whose actions are under scrutiny have time to give careful consideration to what they want to say to investigators.

The procedures are spelled out in the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, a law passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 1974. It states that officers who are under investigation for anything that could lead to disciplinary action cannot be questioned about their actions unless they have been notified 10 days ahead of time.

Even then, nothing police say can be used against them in any criminal proceedings. Their statements must be kept confidential by internal affairs investigators.

A 1999 University of Maryland study found that law enforcement officers in Maryland are afforded some of the strongest protections in the country.

The Citizen Complaint Oversight Panel, a county agency that reviews complaints filed against Prince George's police, criticized the 10-day rule in a report this year, saying it "invites abuse . . . and raises serious concerns about collusion and the code of silence among officers."

Ben Wolman, an Upper Marlboro lawyer who represents police officers and who helped craft the original legislation, said such concerns are misplaced.

"It's never led to a situation where no information was available," Wolman said. "I have never seen it impede an investigation."

In Prince George's, officers who use deadly force are usually provided with a lawyer by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. The lawyer sits next to them when they undergo questioning after 10 days and helps them prepare a "duress statement" -- a written summary of the incident.

There is one exception to the 10-day rule. Under a court settlement reached in 1989 between Prince George's County and the Fraternal Order of Police, officers must fill out a one-page form called a Discharge of Firearms Report after using their guns.

The form gives a basic description of the shooting and must be completed that day. Officers may confer with a lawyer or union representative beforehand.

Prince George's Police Chief John S. Farrell has pointed to the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights to explain why it often takes the department several months -- or even years -- to investigate shootings and complaints. Besides the 10-day rule, the statute governs police disciplinary proceedings.

Farrell also complained that the law makes it tough for him to punish officers.

"The process itself is so cumbersome and so long," he said last year. "I'm not making a judgment on it -- that's the law."

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