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Judge says expert report detailing alleged racist police behavior should be released to the public

A federal judge has ordered material from a police discrimination lawsuit unsealed. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A federal judge on Wednesday ended a bitter legal dispute over court records between Prince George’s County and a group of Black and Hispanic police officers, ruling that an expert report detailing allegations of racism within the police department must be unsealed and made available to the public.

U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang chastised the county for trying to shield the information and said there is a compelling public interest in releasing the records because of the nature of the allegations facing the department in the lawsuit.

“Particularly at a time when there is an intense public focus on the question of whether there is systemic race discrimination within police departments nationwide, there is understandably significant public interest in the present case, as Plaintiffs are effectively alleging systemic racism within the police department serving a majority-minority county of close to one million residents located adjacent to the nation’s capital,” the judge wrote.

The county and the plaintiffs, all current or former Prince George’s police officers and members of the United Black Police Officers Association (UBPOA) and the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association (HNLEA), have 10 days to collaborate on filing an unredacted version of the records.

The county said in a statement that it will cooperate fully with the judge’s order and will “continue to vigorously defend the employment practices of the Prince George’s County Police Department.”

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“ The release of the reports from both sides, and other files, will make it clear that the Prince George’s County Police Department did not engage in discriminatory behavior,” county attorney Rhonda Weaver said.

The officers, who filed a discrimination lawsuit against the county two years ago, have been arguing since the summer that a report and its supplemental materials — written by a former Los Angeles deputy sheriff who was hired by the officers to analyze demographic, disciplinary and use-of-force data — should not be redacted. It was initially filed with the court under seal by request of the county in mid-June, the same day former police chief Hank Stawinski announced his resignation.

The report cites specific examples from civilian complaints, department emails and internal affairs data to demonstrate what the officers in the lawsuit assert is a pattern of discrimination and retaliation based on race.

Attorneys for the county have said the report should be kept from the public eye — arguing that police personnel files, including disciplinary histories, are protected under Maryland public record statutes.

The officers filed a motion to unseal the report, which was joined by community groups calling for transparency and reform, a news organization and, in a rare move, both the Prince George’s state’s attorney and top public defender.

Chuang heard arguments from all parties on Jan. 29, and ruled in favor of mostly unsealing the report in a lengthy decision filed in court Wednesday.

The ruling comes at a time of change in the county, as the department prepares to implement 46 police reforms recently proposed by a work group and approved by the county executive — without a permanent police chief. After eight months with an interim chief, the county executive is expected to announce her new hire soon.

The group found disparities within the department’s hiring and recruiting practices, though the county executive said at a recent news conference that the work group’s report and the pending lawsuit are separate issues.

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The judge will allow some details to remain under seal, including the personal contact information of individuals named in the report and the names of officers, victims and witnesses listed in internal affairs investigations but who are not named in the amended complaint. However, the details of those investigations and the allegations of wrongdoing will be unredacted.

Chuang also ruled that the state’s attorney’s office shall be granted unfettered access to the report — including the information that will remain redacted for the public.

The state’s attorney’s office sought access to the report, saying prosecutors need to ensure their police witnesses are not among those accused of racism or wrongdoing. The public defender’s officer also sought the material, saying it needs to be aware of misconduct allegations against police officers testifying against their clients.

During their arguments in January before Chuang, the state’s attorney’s office said that the county and police department had denied their request to see the unredacted report — citing the pending court case.

In his ruling Wednesday, the judge called that argument from the county “a gross mischaracterization of this Court’s order” and one that is “wrong and arguably disingenuous.”

The county attorney said in her statement that the judge’s order provides “important guidance as to what information could and could not be released” under Maryland state statute.

Dennis Corkery, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and one of the lawyers for the officers, said they are pleased with the judge’s ruling and feel the decision to unseal the report validates “the concerns we are raising, that racist policing in Prince George’s County is a matter of public importance.”

“We hope that this can inspire more transparency in the police department,” Corkery said.

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Chuang wrote that the decision in favor of unsealing the report was informed by the First Amendment, common law and a compelling public interest in the case — particularly because it involved a government agency.

“The public cannot make well-informed judgments on the propriety of positions taken by the [Prince George’s County Police Department] in this litigation, particularly its decision to seek exclusion of numerous instances of alleged discrimination, without access to the underlying information on the incidents in question,” the judge wrote.

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