A MARYLAND State Police sergeant telephoned Teleta Dashiell, a potential witness in a case he was investigating in 2009, leaving a message for the Somerset County resident to call him. The officer apparently thought he had hung up and was overheard disparaging her to a fellow officer as “some God dang n-----.” Ms. Dashiell filed a complaint, was informed there would be an investigation but could never learn the outcome. “Appropriate disciplinary action was taken” is the only thing she was told, thanks to the secrecy that shrouds investigations of police misconduct in Maryland.
Past efforts to change the law, among the most restrictive in the country, have failed, but there’s a renewed push being mounted in the General Assembly this session. Let’s hope it succeeds, because it would bring needed transparency to investigations that are of critical public interest.
The Maryland Court of Appeals, in a 2015 ruling on Ms. Dashiell’s case, held that the details of internal investigations into police conduct are personnel records that could not be disclosed under the Maryland Public Information Act. Not only does this mean that citizens such as Ms. Dashiell don’t know whether their complaints have been treated seriously, but also oversight of police by citizen complaint boards and other entities — including government inspectors general — is seriously impaired.
Legislation sponsored by Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s) would put Maryland among 27 other states that allow some public access to records of police misconduct. The bill, which got a hearing this week in the House Health and Government Operations Committee, would create a new discretionary exemption under the state’s Public Information Act for records connected with a complaint of job-related misconduct. The bill is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and other groups, including the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP. Some police groups are opposed and cite concerns about officer safety, privacy and reputation, but exceptions are the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association and the United Black Police Officers Association.
No doubt there are occasions when a disclosure of certain information might cause unnecessary harm to police work. But the Public Information Act already allows exceptions for information to be withheld, such as to protect someone’s safety or safeguard an investigation.
Most police are dedicated individuals who signed up for a hard and often thankless job because they want to help people. But if there is to be public trust in police — which is central to their mission — there must be transparency and accountability.