That’s changing under a new state law that opens many such records to public view. The law has ushered in uncertain times for departments and officers concerned about what complaints or missteps could stain their reputations. But it also begins a process of accountability that activists have long called for, and that many experts say ultimately is good for both the public’s perception of policing and for officers themselves.
In New York, Illinois and other places where misconduct records have become more accessible in recent years, fears of officers being harassed and other concerns have not come to pass, said Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who studies police misconduct.
Stinson said the positive effects of transparency outweigh any negatives.
“The inability to obtain records in police misconduct cases leads to an erosion of trust in the police, and erosion of police legitimacy, and all of that makes it more difficult for the police to do their job,” he said. “Because if people don’t have trust and faith in their local police departments, they aren’t going to cooperate with law enforcement, they aren’t going to respect law enforcement officers.”
In the weeks since the new law took effect Oct. 1, departments have scrambled to respond to requests for documents. Some are sorting through file drawers or cardboard boxes. Others are combing through spreadsheets, separating what still may not be releasable from what is.
The Washington Post requested records from nearly 150 agencies and most signaled their efforts to respond. Many departments, including some of the smallest, have already provided records or data. These include the 16-officer Brunswick Police Department.
Kevin Grunwell, who became Brunswick’s police chief this year, said his agency received several broad requests for records during the first week of October.
He’s been sorting through records of current and former officers to figure out what should be released. Because some of the information is sensitive, much of the work can’t easily be delegated, he said. “It’s not like I can have my administrative assistant go through everything and read it and decide what we can release. It’s either me or the captain that has to do it.”
When Grunwell releases a record, he notifies the officers involved. “Obviously, they’re not thrilled about that,” he said. Officers worry that accusations found to be false or unsupported will nonetheless tarnish their names.
“I 100 percent believe that 99 percent of the police out there are good people and want to do the right thing and want to help people,” Grunwell said. “Then you have one or two people who make bad decisions or who are generally bad cops, and the whole industry looks bad because of that.”
Police unions opposed Maryland’s law, as they have with similar laws in other states, arguing that disclosure of the records would invade officers’ privacy, impede their employment opportunities and subject them to unfair smears and harassment. Stinson said these types of things have not tended to happen elsewhere.
“I’m not aware of any negative fallout for individual officers other than embarrassment,” Stinson said. “That to me is the big fear — that the cops are the good guys and they want to keep it that way. And most cops are good guys.”
Before the new law, Maryland was among about 20 states that prohibited the release of police disciplinary records. The public in those states cannot find out whether an officer had been the subject of complaints or faced punishment for misconduct. Such records in Maryland were considered government employee personnel records, which state law deems confidential.
State lawmakers for years pressed the General Assembly to adopt reforms in his name, but it wasn’t until nationwide clamor for increased accountability following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 that the legislature passed the measure. It was supported by a coalition of about 90 advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Common Cause and the Public Justice Center, as well as the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which represents news outlets including The Post.
The law makes records of misconduct investigations releasable regardless of whether allegations were sustained or resulted in discipline. Transparency advocates say that’s important so the public can understand which officers are frequently accused and assess whether police agencies are conducting investigations appropriately. Officials may still withhold the records in various situations, including if disclosure would interfere with an ongoing investigation, deprive someone of the right to a fair trial or otherwise be contrary to the public interest.
David Rocah, the senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said some agencies appear reluctant to accept the new transparency. “What we’re seeing so far in general are frequent attempts by police agencies to evade the law,” he said. “Either by relying on overbroad assertions that the release of investigatory records would not be in the public interest or through exorbitant fees for the production of the records.”
The Anne Arundel County Police Department, in response to a request from The Post, provided data about internal misconduct investigations over a decade but redacted all officers’ names.
There is no provision in the new law explicitly allowing officers’ names to be withheld, and Anne Arundel County’s department is the only one since the law change to refuse to release them in response to records requests from The Post.
The department’s records custodian, Christine Ryder, wrote that “producing the name and badge numbers in matters of internal investigations would have a chilling effect on future investigations and therefore disclosure would be contrary to the public interest.”
The Harford County Sheriff’s Office, in response to a request from The Post this summer, released spreadsheets containing data from 265 internal affairs cases with the officers’ names redacted. After the law change, the agency estimated it would charge $9,205 to provide the same data with officer names.
Agencies are allowed to pass the costs of fulfilling a request onto the requester, though they may elect to waive fees if that would be in the public interest. The Maryland State Police and many other agencies have provided records and data to The Post at no charge.
Michelle Hanks, the Harford County sheriff’s records custodian, said in an email that “there is no apparent public interest served by your mass record request.” Hanks said the estimated fee was because it would take sergeants and command staff members dozens of hours, which she said would be paid at overtime rates, to determine which of the 265 rows of data could be released with names and which couldn’t.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler declined through a spokeswoman to comment. He was a staunch opponent of the new law, which he saw as being among a set of “very dangerous” police accountability bills being pushed by “misinformed progressive politicians,” he said in a February video posted on YouTube by WBFF FOX45 Baltimore.
Gahler said some legislators supporting the measures were “ill-intended.” He said other lawmakers’ lack of understanding of policing was comparable to the impatience of fast-food customers. He called this his “McDonald’s Theory.”
“I suspect that we can all relate to the experience of sitting in the drive-through line at your local McDonald’s and thinking, ‘What the heck’s going on back there? Why’s it taking so long? They should do it this way instead. Why don’t they just do this or that?’” Gahler said. “In reality, we don’t understand all the experience, training, reasoning, processes and procedures involved in what is a very proven process of delivering prepared food to an unending line of consumers within seconds of ordering.”
Last year, the Harford sheriff’s office investigated four allegations of unnecessary force or brutality, the agency’s data shows. None were sustained.