BURIED THREE-QUARTERS of the way through a 286-page draft report last year on the rules governing Maryland’s judiciary is a single sentence that represents a shard in the vast mosaic of guidelines, procedures, regulations and traditions that help distinguish American democracy from tyrannies, autocracies and totalitarian states. The sentence is boilerplate — it simply provides that the names of police officers and other law enforcement authorities involved in arrests be included in the state court system’s searchable online case database.
In fact, the only remarkable thing about the sentence is that it is crossed out. In their wisdom, or rather absence of it, the people who make the rules for Maryland’s courts decided that transparency and police accountability are no big deal.
The change, recommended by the state judiciary’s rules committee and adopted by the Court of Appeals, apparently went into effect late last week when, the Baltimore Sun reported, officers’ names suddenly disappeared from the online case database, and were no longer searchable. The public can now easily find names and contact information for defendants, prosecutors, defense lawyers and others involved in cases — but not for arresting officers.
The change is a particularly odious development in Maryland, whose biggest city, Baltimore, has gained national notoriety for a series of lurid police corruption cases in the past year. As it happens, prosecutors, investigators and journalists used the online database to help uncover the wide-ranging conspiracy in the Baltimore police’s Gun Trace Task Force, which involves officers who stole drugs, money, jewelry and other property from those they were investigating, including innocent people. Those scandals came hard on the heels of a federal investigation that uncovered a pattern of police abuses in the city, where officers carried out random and often unjustified stops and arrests targeting African Americans over the course of many years.
The core of the problems that have plagued the Baltimore Police Department, whose 3,100 personnel make it the nation’s eighth-largest municipal force, is a deep-seated tradition of impunity and unaccountability. Good police departments understand that those problems corrode public trust and are anathema to effective law enforcement. The antidote is hardly the adoption of what amounts to a regime of secrecy that will make it more difficult for lawyers, the public and journalists to spot patterns in arrests and court records that suggest abuses.
The apparent impetus for the rule change was a concern, expressed by the police union and police chief in Anne Arundel County, that officers might be at risk of harassment, especially on social media, if their names are readily available online and in charging documents. There have, in fact, been a handful of such cases around the country. The right response to them is to prosecute the offenders, not to drape a veil of anonymity over public servants, thereby sending the message that they are not accountable for their actions.
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