“As we move towards greater police oversight and transparency [the bill] is an essential step forward in improving public confidence in law enforcement,” said Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore City Democrat, at the bill’s hearing on Jan. 22. “In Maryland, members of the public are not able to access any records of misconduct against law enforcement officers.”
“Maryland is in a minority of states that make misconduct records completely inaccessible to the public,” she continued. She said it should not require a Department of Justice investigation to expose misconduct in police departments — and that members of the public should be able to follow up on their complaints filed against police officers using the Maryland Public Information Act process.
The bill does not mandate that all personnel records be disclosed, Carter said. But the bill would require release of records regarding administrative and criminal investigations of misconduct, including hearing records, internal affairs records and disciplinary actions taken as a result of investigations.
“These [records] will no longer be mandatorily barred under the Maryland Public Information Act,” she said.
However, the bill does give custodians of records certain discretion to deny access to records that would interfere with a current law enforcement proceeding, deny another party a right to a fair trial, constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy, disclose the identity of a confidential source or endanger the life and safety of another individual.
The bill is filed with a host of others in the 2021 session that call for greater police transparency and accountability.
The law would reverse a provision in the 1974 Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights that for 46 years has exempted “personnel records” of police misconduct from going public. Provisions in the Maryland Public Information Act shields police personnel records from public inspection.
Carter’s proposal takes the name of Anton Black, a former Kent County resident, who in 2018 was killed in Greensboro at the hands of police there. Carter said there were 30 “in custody deaths” in the year Black was killed.
Among the officers responsible for Black’s death was Officer Thomas Webster, IV., who was discharged from the Dover City Police Department in Delaware for breaking the jaw of a 19-year-old black man who was cooperating and obeying Webster during an arrest in 2013.
Webster was later acquitted of criminal charges in the Dover incident, but in 2016 he was banned from ever seeking re-employment with Dover City Police after the department settled with the victim for $300,000.
Webster did not disclose dozens of misconduct complaints against him during his employment with the Dover City Police when he applied to the Greensboro Police Department. But Greensboro Police were reportedly aware of the incident in 2013 that barred Webster from returning to the Dover City Police Department — and hired him anyway.
A cross-filed bill in the House has a hearing on Feb. 9 at 1:30 p.m.