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Maryland General Assembly considers policing reforms

Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski announced at a news conference in January that Michael A. Owen Jr. was being charged with second-degree murder.
Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski announced at a news conference in January that Michael A. Owen Jr. was being charged with second-degree murder. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Maryland lawmakers are pushing to change laws on disclosure of police discipline records, spurred in part by a police officer’s fatal shooting of a handcuffed suspect in Prince George’s County this year.

Officer Michael A. Owen Jr., who was indicted Thursday on a second-degree murder charge, was involved in at least two prior shootings, one of them fatal, before he fired seven times at William Green in the front seat of his cruiser, officials have said.

But Maryland law classifies disciplinary records as personnel matters, prohibiting the department from making disciplinary records from those incidents public, unless they are obtained through discovery in a court proceeding.

Green’s death, following the 2018 death of 19-year-old Anton Black in police custody on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has given new urgency to old conversations in Annapolis about increasing transparency, and other police restructuring.

There is consensus between top police officials and advocates that Maryland’s disclosure laws, which are more restrictive than most states, need to change. But there is vociferous disagreement about several bills being considered — which some worry could prevent any progress at all.

California became the first state to require law enforcement agencies to publicly disclose records of internal investigations into police shootings, severe use-of-force incidents, and confirmed cases of lying and sexual assault by on-duty officers.

There are 28 states that make at least portions of officers’ disciplinary records public, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, although only California requires disclosure.

Maryland, Virginia and the District are among the jurisdictions that make nothing available.

A bill supported by Prince George’s Police Chief Hank Stawinski, who is in his first year leading the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, would make complaints about officer-involved shootings or serious injury available through public information requests — regardless of whether those complaints have been found to have merit.

Complaints related to sexual assault, dishonesty and discrimination by officers would only be available if they were sustained, according to that bill, sponsored by Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City).

The legislation is opposed by the ACLU and a coalition of advocates who say it is too narrow. They are backing an amended version of the bill filed in the Senate, sponsored by state Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), which makes all complaints in those categories, sustained and unsustained, publicly available.

The Maryland Fraternal Order of Police opposes both bills, which received committee hearings last week. They grew out of work sessions including Stawinski, Clippinger, and other lawmakers and advocates that began this past summer, but discussion has largely stalled over whether to include unsustained complaints.

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A separate bill is named “Anton’s Law” for Black, whose family pleaded for months for information from the Greensboro, Md., Police Department. It mirrors Carter’s bill in its changes to public disclosures; adds provisions to clarify when officers can use force; and strikes language in the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights that says only sworn officers can interview each other after use-of-force incidents.

That bill, which died in committee last year, had an emotional hearing in Annapolis this session.

“I am tired of excuses,” LaToya Holley, Black’s sister, said at the hearing.

Anton’s Law is backed by the ACLU and a coalition of advocates but opposed by the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, who argue that it is overly broad and would create unrealistic checklists for how police should act in quickly evolving situations.

Stawinski said officers are frequently the target of unjustified complaints. He maintained that it would be unfair to have information about all complaints become public if an investigation has found that the officers did not do what they were accused of.

But advocates say the bill supported by Stawinski does not go nearly far enough and could in fact create a perverse incentive for departments not to sustain complaints so the information does not become public. They point out that only a tiny fraction of complaints are sustained.

If a department has nothing to hide, then full transparency will help build public trust, said Toni Holness, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

“The chief’s bill is a publicity stunt,” she said. “They profess to want transparency and yet refuse to allow transparency over the vast majority of misconduct cases.”

Clippinger said he views the bill as a starting point and is open to changes.

Last year in Montgomery County, there were 58 use-of-excessive-force allegations, 23 allegations of discrimination or harassment, 12 allegations of untruthfulness and no sexual assault allegations. None of the allegations were sustained that year, according to Police Chief Marcus Jones.

Stawinski said the Prince George’s department last year sustained two cases of excessive force and five dishonesty cases, but did not sustain any sexual assault or bias complaints. He said he did not have data on the total number of complaints filed.

Howard Friedman, an attorney in Boston who represents alleged victims of police misconduct, said the average officer probably gets one or two complaints over the course of their career. If an officer is getting three or four complaints — especially about the same type of behavior — it may show a pattern that should be available to the public, he said.

“The idea that just because it is unsustained it is meaningless is just not truthful,” Friedman said.

He said he has seen cases in which one citizen repeatedly wrongfully complains about an officer. But if there was full disclosure, he argued, then that would benefit the officer, who could show he or she was in the right.

Terry Gilbert, a civil rights and defense lawyer in Ohio, where discipline records are public records, said he has often seen departments fail to fully investigate complaints that they then rule unsubstantiated.

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