Police disciplinary files are exempt from the Maryland Public Information Act, the Maryland Court of Appeals said in a 5-2 ruling on Thursday.
The majority noted that the law exempts personnel information from disclosure and does not make a distinction based on whether a citizen’s complaint is “sustained” or “unsustained.” It said that mandatory disclosure of the findings could have a chilling effect on the disciplinary process.
The public interest in police discipline files in Maryland was heightened in particular after former officer Michael Wood tweeted a number of allegations against the Baltimore Police Department regarding police misconduct.
In 2009, Teleta Dashiell filed a complaint against a Maryland State Police officer who accidentally left a racial slur on her answer machine. MSP later told her that the complaint had been sustained and appropriate action had been taken, but she was unable to verify the details of the discipline or the investigation into her complaint through the Maryland Public Information Act.
Dashiell could not be reached for comment, and her attorney did not respond to a request for comment. The Maryland State Police declined to comment.
Steven Zansberg, a media law attorney with the Denver office of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, said that in some states — such as Florida, Ohio, Montana, and Arizona — the public is entitled to inspect disciplinary records upon the completion of a disciplinary investigation as a matter of statute.
“It does turn very much on the language of the state statute,” Zansberg said. “The problem with the statute in Maryland is that it includes quite plainly, on its face, matters that include official conduct.”
Zansberg noted that the court’s ruling was particularly consequential in that it applies not only to police officers but to all public employees. Zansberg said the people of Maryland should be entitled to know how severely someone was punished, whether the allegations were sustained and which department policies were violated.
“I think that’s what it means to have an open government,” Zansberg said. “The only way to rectify this situation, as I see it, in Maryland is through the legislative branch responding to public outcry as a result of a whole series of incidents not only in Maryland but across the nation where citizens are increasingly concerned about the manner in which the police are policing themselves.”
Jennifer Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Noel Isama, director of transparency and accountability at Common Cause Maryland, said a coalition led by the ACLU is already particularly concerned about this issue and will press for legislative change. An ACLU representative did not respond to a request for comment.
“It was a hard blow for media and for transparency,” Snyder said. “There is a compelling public interest in knowing that the people who are entrusted to protect and serve really are protecting and serving and that there’s faith in the process. … When the community that is being policed doesn’t have faith in the process and the fair and level playing ground that’s available to them, you get to a bigger mess of issues.”
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