BY JACOB STEINBERG
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland legislators have introduced a bill that could allow public access to police officers’ disciplinary records.
HB0120, the reintroduction of Anton’s Law, sponsored by Del. Gabriel Acevero, D-Montgomery and Del. Erek L. Barron, D-Prince George’s, aims to increase the transparency associated with police misconduct investigations, allowing the public to better understand how complaints against police are carried out.
“Anton’s Law seeks to inject a measure of trust between the police and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve,” Acevero said.
Anton’s Law is named after 19-year-old Anton Black, who died while in police custody in Greensboro, Maryland, in 2018.
“Anton Black’s family, and the community that helped raise him deserve accountability and justice,” Acevero said in a press release.
The bill stipulates that a record relating to an administrative or criminal investigation of misconduct by a law enforcement officer is not a personnel record for purposes of Maryland’s Public Information Act, according to a state legislative analysis.
Those records include an internal affairs investigatory record, a hearing record, and records relating to a disciplinary decision, according to a state legislative analysis.
The ACLU of Maryland and other advocacy organizations throughout the state have placed a heavy emphasis on police reform for the 2021 legislative session — this bill is part of that initiative.
Police reform has become an increased focus nationally in the last year prompted by events including the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, and the police-involved shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“It addresses the veil of secrecy that currently surrounds the police department investigations of police misconduct, which seals departments and chiefs from accountability for the failures of that accountability system,” David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland said at a Jan. 21 Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing that Capital News Service viewed.
The bill would allow Marylanders to potentially see any investigations launched into officers in their community or officers whom they’ve encountered.
“As we move toward greater police oversight and transparency, I believe SB0178 is an essential step forward in improving public confidence in law enforcement,” Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore, the cross-file bill’s sponsor, said at the Senate hearing.
Under the current Maryland Public Information Act, it’s mandatory that the custodian of records deny inspection of police officers’ investigatory records.
This means that even a complainant can’t access them.
If passed, this bill demands that custodians would now have the discretion to share these records with those who request them. However, the custodian could deny the records request.
Reasons for that in the bill include violation of privacy, disclosure of the identity of a confidential source, interference with a valid and proper law enforcement proceeding, or endangering the physical safety of an individual, according to the legislative analysis.
The agency can also deny the records request if it deprives another person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication — or if it discloses an investigative technique or procedure, according to the legislative analysis.
“It’s time to expose cancerous police officers throughout the profession and this bill can help do that,” Neill Franklin a board member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership said in support of the bill at the Senate hearing.
“Many states have already moved to do so and Maryland needs to get beyond the curve,” Franklin added.
However, some are concerned that allowing the public access to these records could jeopardize criminal cases.
“The place where I’m concerned is that mere allegations would become public and therefore could affect an officer who’s about to testify in a criminal case,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, D, said at the Senate hearing.
Keeping this concern in mind, Shellenberger and David Morris of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriffs Association offered their support for SB0178 — with amendments.
The Maryland Fraternal Order of Police submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill voicing two main concerns.
First, the organization feels as though the bill would unnecessarily expose private, confidential and personal information of police officers, according to the testimony.
Also, it expressed concern that the bill doesn’t clearly define what an agency is for those who want to investigate police officers, according to the testimony.
The House version of the bill is scheduled to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.
“I think we’ll find that if we address police accountability, it will help us deal more effectively with the issue of public safety and the role that police can play in that,” Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said at the Senate hearing.