In Baltimore, No One Left to Press the Police
BALTIMORE In the halcyon days when American newspapers were feared rather than pitied, I had the pleasure of reporting on crime in the prodigiously criminal environs of Baltimore. The city was a wonderland of chaos, dirt and miscalculation, and loyal adversaries were many. Among them, I could count police commanders who felt it was their duty to demonstrate that crime never occurred in their precincts, desk sergeants who believed that they had a right to arrest and detain citizens without reporting it and, of course, homicide detectives and patrolmen who, when it suited them, argued convincingly that to provide the basic details of any incident might lead to the escape of some heinous felon. Everyone had very good reasons for why nearly every fact about a crime should go unreported.
In response to such flummery, I had in my wallet, next to my Baltimore Sun press pass, a business card for Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney of the Maryland District Court, with his home phone number on the back. When confronted with a desk sergeant or police spokesman convinced that the public had no right to know who had shot whom in the 1400 block of North Bentalou Street, I would dial the judge.
And then I would stand, secretly delighted, as yet another police officer learned not only the fundamentals of Maryland's public information law, but the fact that as custodian of public records, he needed to kick out the face sheet of any incident report and open his arrest log to immediate inspection. There are civil penalties for refusing to do so, the judge would assure him. And as chief judge of the District Court, he would declare, I may well invoke said penalties if you go further down this path.
Delays of even 24 hours? Nope, not acceptable. Requiring written notification from the newspaper? No, the judge would explain. Even ordinary citizens have a right to those reports. And woe to any fool who tried to suggest to His Honor that he would need a 30-day state Public Information Act request for something as basic as a face sheet or an arrest log.
"What do you need the thirty days for?" the judge once asked a police spokesman on speakerphone.
"We may need to redact sensitive information," the spokesman offered.
"You can't redact anything. Do you hear me? Everything in an initial incident report is public. If the report has been filed by the officer, then give it to the reporter tonight or face contempt charges tomorrow."
The late Judge Sweeney, who'd been named to his post in the early 1970s, when newspapers were challenging the Nixonian model of imperial governance, kept this up until 1996, when he retired. I have few heroes left, but he still qualifies.
To be a police reporter in such a climate was to be a prince of the city, and to be a citizen of such a city was to know that you were not residing in a police state. But no longer -- not in Baltimore and, I am guessing, not in any city where print journalism spent the 1980s and '90s taking profits and then, in the decade that followed, impaling itself on the Internet.
In January, a new Baltimore police spokesman -- a refugee from the Bush administration -- came to the incredible conclusion that the city department could decide not to identify those police officers who shot or even killed someone. (Similar policies have been established by several other police departments in the United States as well as by the FBI.)
Anthony Guglielmi, the department's director of public affairs, informed Baltimoreans that, henceforth, Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld would decide unilaterally whether citizens would know the names of those who had used their weapons on civilians. If they did something illegal or unwarranted -- in the commissioner's judgment -- they would be named. Otherwise, the Baltimore department would no longer regard the decision to shoot someone as the sort of responsibility for which officers might be required to stand before the public.
As justification for this change, Bealefeld, in a letter to the City Council, cited 23 threats in 2008 against his officers. Police union officials further wheeled out the example of the only Baltimore police officer killed as an act of revenge for a police-involved shooting -- a 2001 case in which the officer was seen by happenstance in a Dundalk bar, then stalked and murdered.