On The Watch, Part 5: Baltimore Police Tightens Grip On Police Misconduct Records
Out of the 327 homicide cases in the city this year, only about 67 of these investigations have been closed. The police need witnesses and information from the community in order to solve cases. But the public wants info from police department, too -- such as the number of complaints made about police misconduct. And what happens to cops who are subject to internal investigations?
On a Saturday morning this fall activists held a march calling for an end to street violence. The event, called the Unity Rally, featured a marching band and various performances by local dj's and hip hop artists. It also show-cased an unlikely partnership: city police closed down North Ave and escorted the marchers, converging from East and West side neighborhoods, to the Board of Education. It’s rare to see young people and the police working together since the rioting that erupted after Freddie Gray’s death last April.
25 year old Keenan Richardson has hosted parties for Jay Z as well local artists. He describes himself as a "lifestyle ambassador for The Downtown Locker Room" and drives a luxury SUV for the popular shoe store. He says he and his friends want the murders on their streets to end. And they want the support of the Baltimore Police Department. But tensions over police misconduct toward civilians have been at an all time high since Freddie Gray's arrest was captured on videotape. "Stuff has been happening for years. Now we're living in social media and these things get out. And we don’t want it be 'business as usual.'" Keenan and others say one of their biggest questions is -- what is the department doing about the police abuse that’s NOT caught on video? Does an officer’s misconduct go unpunished? Does the department allow officers who are repeat offenders to operate with impunity? How are the internal investigations conducted? "We want to know why this info is being withheld – from the public, from us. We need to see this type of stuff," he says.
Under Maryland law, all that information is shielded by The Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. The law was enacted in 1974. It says that if there's a complaint about an officer, it's investigated by fellow officers. And the person who complained never gets to know the outcome.
Around the country, many states have similar laws, but recently there have been successful attempts to open up the process and make it more transparent.
For example, a lawsuit brought by the University of Chicago made public tens of thousands of police misconduct cases; California's Attorney General has instituted Open Justice, a database that tracks police-involved shootings. And, according to an investigation by WNYC in New York, there are now 12 states in which police disciplinary records are available to the public after a case has been investigated.
But in Maryland, the grip on police data is only getting tighter.
There was a time, beginning in June, 2014 when Baltimore Police posted a list of serious "use of force" investigations involving officers. No names were given but the website was open to the public. But the last posting was June 28 of this year, two months after Freddie Gray's funeral and the riots that followed.
Around the same time, the Maryland Court of Appeals heard the case of the case of Teleta Dashiell vs. Maryland State Police. Dashiell alleged that a police officer had left a message on her voicemail. The message contained a racist tirade. She filed a complaint with the Maryland State Police and was told her complaint had been "sustained" - that they had taken "appropriate action." The ACLU of Maryland represented Dashiell in the case. Her lawyer was David Rocah who says, "Ms. Dashiell wanted to know what that meant - whether a meaningful investigation had taken place. Maryland State Police refused to give her that information. So we sued."
The judge ruled in favor of the Maryland State Police, citing the Maryland Public Information Act and saying the requested information was part of the officer’s personnel file.
Rocah says he and his client were shocked. How could the outcome of her complaint be withheld from her? "These are not personnel records," Rocah says, "There is no more important public record than this. If you want people to have faith in the system and some faith in a department's own investigations of its officers alleged misconduct - if all that a person gets it - trust us we did the right thing - there isn't a person in the world who will be satisfied with that nor should anyone in the world be satisfied with that." He says Baltimore Police have been "all talk" when it comes to accountability and transparency.
Last week, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis pointed to the fact that three officers have faced criminal charges while he's lead the department. Two were charged with assault and one with several counts of felony theft. Davis said people would be pressed to find a top cop more committed to accountability than he is. "You’re going to see bigger and better things in terms of our transparency, our public reporting with use of force incidents," he pledged.
At the same time, Davis said, laws like the Police Officers Bill of Rights are necessary to protect officers' safety. "We have to protect police officers and afford them due process when they are involved in a critical incident when they’re involved in an accusation of misconduct," Davis said. "But I think we can both protect due process and be transparent with the community. We just have to make sure whatever we’re posting is consistent with existing laws." Davis emphasizes that officers “go through more in a week than most people do in a lifetime. And most officers consistently do the right thing."
But critics say the department could do more to make the criminal justice process fairer. "Our lawyers are fighting this everyday in court," says Natalie Finegar, a lawyer in the Office of Public Defenders. She says public defenders constantly need police disciplinary records when preparing their cases. It's often an officer's word against her client's she explains. So she needs any relevant information about a cop's background to question their credibility in court. But, she says, "The police department will object to subpoenas or object to us getting the records because of the personnel code and under the officer’s bill of rights. Or a [police internal affairs] case could be pending - and pending for years. And then we're not given that information."
Finegar says public defenders are often told they can’t "go on a fishing expedition." They need to prove they have specific reasons for looking at an officer's personnel file. But, Finegar says it’s a catch 22. How do you do specifically justify a request for something when you've never seen it?
This year, the largest organization of public defenders in the country, the New York Legal Aid Society, built The Cop Accountability Project. Cynthia Conti-Cook is a staff attorney in the Legal Aid Society's Special Litigation Unit. She started working on the program in 2014. "In any of my cases, I've done as much research as I possibly could in a state that has extremely strict laws around access to these records." She says they had to be organized about what they did know. "Long before I got here, I've heard as long as thirty-nine years ago, The Legal Aid Society has been keeping some form of record. I heard it was in a scrapbook - it was newspaper articles pasted into a scrapbook." As technology advanced, the process became more sophisticated - people were keeping their own excel spreadsheets in each trial office, each bureau. Now, there is one central database and they have paralegal who maintains it.
Todd Oppenheim also works in the Baltimore Office of Public Defenders and says a lot of times they get information regarding an officer's past conduct from newspaper clippings, online sources, and witness accounts. But that last one is tricky. He says just the other day he was talking to potential witnesses in a client's case. "They felt he was harassed unnecessarily and falsely arrested. And they're afraid to come in and call out the officer on that...issue because they see (the officer) on a daily basis."
But the fear goes even deeper, many say.
Lawyers and others interviewed in the past six months say a lot of people are afraid to make complaints against officers in the first place. There's very little faith that anything constructive will come from it and the only effect is that you’ve angered an officer or two.
This year-long special series is funded by the Bendit Family Foundation, Sig and Barbara Shapiro, The Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Foundation, and the Open Society Institute – Baltimore.