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Court Says Maryland Police Can Keep Their Disciplinary Records Secret

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Months after the rough ride that killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that officers’ disciplinary records can remain hidden from the public. The decision comes more five years after an officer accidentally left a racially-charged voicemail, and the phone’s owner tried to investigate if and how he was disciplined.

Back in 2010, Sergeant John Maiello left a racist message on Teleta Dashiell’s voicemail, believing he’d hung up his phone. In the message, he used the n-word several times. Dashiell filed a complaint, but when she inquired about how it was dealt with, state police declined to release Maiello’s disciplinary record. She then submitted a records request under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), but was told “personnel records” don’t have to be disclosed — a decision that a lower court in Baltimore supported. And in June, that ruling was upheld by the appellate court.

“Mandatory disclosure of personnel information related to sustained findings could chill the disciplinary process, rendering those in control less willing to sustain a finding of misconduct,” the court concluded.

Efforts to keep officer information private in Maryland come in stark contrast to a recent push in Philadelphia — authorized by Police Chief Charles Ramsey — to disclose information about officers involved in shootings within 72 hours. Despite backlash from the Philadelphia Police Department union, Ramsey contends, “we’re within our rights to take the steps we took, have taken, and are going to take.” Doubling down on the departmental move last Friday, he revealed the names of two officers who shot and wounded a man who hit their vehicle and drove off. The policy is one of many recommended by the DOJ, which found an increased use of force in the department, due in large part to training failures.

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Still, failure to disclose officer information is one of many hurdles to holding police accountable. Internal investigations of officer misconduct are often obscured from the public as well. When that is the case, investigations aren’t thorough and many aren’t pursued at all. Few result in disciplinary action.

Body cameras are also touted for their ability to hold officers accountable for using excessive force, but that footage is typically withheld from the public. In D.C., for instance, Mayor Muriel Bowser wants camera footage exempt from public records. Cops can also turn cameras on and off at their will, and many destroy surveillance cameras and cameras and phones belonging to people who film them. In other cases, videos submitted to police disappear altogether.