On July 1, 2015 the Capital Gazette published an editorial entitled “Police misconduct info should be public.” The Letter to the Editor from me to which the editorial referred appears below:
Dear Mr. Hutzell:
It is not particularly unusual that I find myself in agreement with the dissenting opinion in a decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals, and I again find myself in that position in the case of Maryland Department of State Police vs. Dashiell. As reported by The Capital, the Court of Appeals held in that case that records of an internal investigation pertaining to the sustained violation of administrative rules by a police officer were “personnel records” protected from public disclosure under the Maryland Public Information Act.
I agree with the dissent that the majority took an unnecessarily expansive view of the definition of “personnel records” that must be kept secret from the public. Accepting as we must that the majority’s view is the correct interpretation of the law, the law must be changed to allow the disclosure of sustained complaints of the use of excessive force by police officers.
The fact that citizens need to be vigilant about the manner in which the discipline and professional conduct of their police force is maintained no longer should be in dispute. This is true even for the best of police departments, such as the Anne Arundel County Police Department. It takes only a handful of rotten apples to spoil the barrel, and to do so very quickly. It is difficult, however, for citizens to be vigilant about problems that are hidden from them.
On the same day that The Capital reported the Dashiell decision it reported that the Anne Arundel County Police Department disclosed that 25 of the 78 complaints investigated by the Internal Affairs Section in 2014 (32%) were sustained. Of the 78 complaints investigated 31 involved allegations of excessive force. The information published by the Police Department does not indicate how many of the 31 complaints of excessive force were sustained.
The Capital also reported that in 2014 force was used against 198 people arising from 141 separate incidents involving the Police Department. In that context, 31 complaints that the force used was excessive is not an insignificant number. The public deserves detailed information on how many of those complaints were sustained, and on the facts and outcomes of the sustained complaints. Absent this information there is no way for the public to evaluate how effectively a Police Chief is maintaining the discipline of the department.
Because of the unique nature of their jobs police officers have been given protection from unfounded disciplinary action not enjoyed by any other governmental employees in the form of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights; it is not easy to discipline a police officer. The other side of the same coin is that sustained complaints of excessive force by police officers should be disclosed to the public. The consequences of a government clerk or laborer reporting late to work are one thing, the consequences of a police officer using excessive force are quite another.
Police officers in Maryland cannot have it both ways. They cannot demand one of the most protective Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights in the nation and also expect to prevent the public from gaining knowledge of their use of excessive force if complaints are sustained. Are officers who use excessive force going to be embarrassed by public disclosure? Yes, although that is not the purpose of disclosure. The purpose of disclosure lies in the greater good, which is the public accountability of police officers, and Police Chiefs, for the manner in which force is used against citizens.
David A. Plymyer
July 1, 2015