“We just had to take extraordinary steps,” Prince George’s Public Defender Keith Lotridge said of the court filing.
The unusual move comes after what Lotridge called years of frustrated, failed attempts to pry open the personnel records of police officers. But the pending discrimination lawsuit against the county’s police department, first filed in 2018, has opened a window into the information that has largely been out of reach to the public.
In a statement Friday, Rhonda Weaver, the county’s custodian of records, said “any request for information will be handled as part of the litigation proceedings.”
As part of the discovery process, the plaintiffs — a group of Black and Hispanic officers — were able to obtain demographic, disciplinary and use-of-force data regarding employees of the police department. The plaintiffs then hired an expert witness in police policy to analyze the information.
His corresponding report — and the lengthy supplemental materials provided alongside it — were initially filed with the court under seal by request of the county, which has argued that the information is confidential under Maryland state statute.
For months now, the attorneys for the plaintiffs have been arguing that the information is a matter of public interest and should be unsealed, and slowly the judge has allowed for parts of the report to be unredacted. The first version of the partially unsealed report was made public on June 18 — the same day that Hank Stawinski resigned as the county’s chief of police.
The independent expert, Michael Graham, has asserted that the police department disproportionately punishes Black and Hispanic officers relative to their White counterparts.
Just last week, more analysis from the report was unveiled, citing statistics that show 94 percent of use-of-force incidents in the county involved Black and Hispanic residents. The latest demographic data suggests that the county is at least 80 percent Black and Hispanic. The latest version of the report also alleged discrimination within the police department’s promotion system and cited data that showed 80 percent of officers with the rank of captain are White.
The expert report has also listed the names of officers who have been accused of biased or discriminatory behavior, and it identified 19 officers — whose names remain redacted — with more than 30 use-of-force incidents on their record. Three-fourths of them are White, according to the filing.
This information was especially disturbing to the public defender’s office, according to Lotridge and the motion to intervene and unseal, because it learned about some officer’s alleged misconduct through the expert report — rather than through the disclosure proceedings between the state’s attorney’s office and the county attorney’s office in court.
Some of those named in Graham’s report are officers “who have participated in the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of the Office’s clients,” attorneys from the Georgetown University Law Center, representing the public defender’s office, wrote in the motion to intervene.
“Ensuring public access to the full report will therefore shed much needed light on the ways that the misconduct alleged in this case has infected other aspects [of] the County’s criminal legal system,” the motion said.
Lotridge and his attorneys could not be certain where the breakdown in communication happened that prevented them from seeing this part of the officers’ personnel records. Under the landmark Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors are legally obligated to hand over evidence favorable to the defense — including information that might call into question the integrity of an investigation. The past bias or behavior of an officer involved in that investigation falls under Brady, the public defender’s office argued.
Lotridge said this is information that his office should already have but rarely gets, because the gatekeepers of officer personnel records are the police department, the county attorney’s office — which represents the police department — and the state’s attorney’s office.
The state’s attorney’s office can only disclose to the public defender what the police department and county attorney’s office have allowed them to see, Lotridge said.
“There’s never been an open door to the type of information that we think we should have been provided,” Lotridge said. “It’s like a shell game.”
In a statement Friday, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy (D) said that her office requested an unredacted copy of the expert report from the county government so that it could “meet its discovery obligations” under Brady.
“That request was denied,” the statement said. “I believe that transparency and cooperation is imperative which is why my office is now in the process of filing an emergency motion with the federal court for the unredacted report.”
The county attorney’s office has often argued both in court and in discussions during the newly formed Police Reform Work Group meetings that it is bound by state public records laws, which deem police personnel files to be confidential. But in its motion, the public defender’s office and its attorneys argued that the county has not made a compelling argument for why this information should be redacted.
“Although the County’s brief alludes to a generalized interest in maintaining the ‘confidentiality’ of police personnel records, it fails to explain how PGPD — or any individual officer — would be harmed by the disclosure of the specific material it seeks to redact in this case,” the motion said.
An attorney for the public defender’s office said the county will have until Oct. 9 to respond to its motion to intervene before a judge will decide whether to unseal the report.