The high cost of secrecy.

A fair share of the blame for the corruption that has enveloped the Baltimore Police Department lies with the Maryland General Assembly. It was the General Assembly, after all, that enacted an anemic disciplinary system for law enforcement officers and then shrouded it in secrecy, creating an environment in which corruption flourished.

The General Assembly has never recognized the fact that policing a big city like Baltimore is unlike policing elsewhere in the state. The one-size-fits-all system that the General Assembly adopted was a recipe for disaster in Baltimore, and a disaster is what occurred.

No state affords law enforcement officers greater protection from accountability than Maryland. First, it makes getting rid of bad officers as onerous and time-consuming as possible through the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. Then, it secretes the results of disciplinary actions as “personnel records” under the Maryland Public Information Act.

There is more than one reason for the corruption within the BPD. There is no doubt, however, that it was the secrecy of the department’s disciplinary system that contributed to the breadth and severity of the corruption by hiding from the public just how troubled the department had become. By the time the public found out, it was too late.

The story of Sgt. Thomas Wilson serves as the perfect illustration. Wilson is the poster child for what happens to a police department when the outcomes of a dysfunctional disciplinary process are buried out of sight.

A bail bondsman and admitted drug dealer, Donald Stepp, testified during the trial of Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, members of the Gun Trace Task Force. Stepp claimed Wilson once provided security when Stepp met with a drug supplier. Wilson was not a member of the GTTF and is not charged with any crime.

The Baltimore Sun, however, obtained documents revealing some interesting things about Wilson’s background. In 2003, Wilson was accused by a federal judge of lying in court, and a police hearing board recommended that he lose five days of leave for his conduct.

In 2005, a hearing board recommended that Wilson receive a 15-day suspension for allegedly entering and searching a home without a warrant, getting a warrant after the fact, and then falsifying paperwork to indicate that the warrant had been obtained before entering the home. The police commissioner at the time, Leonard Hamm, had
the authority to increase the punishment but apparently did not do so. Wilson remained in the BPD and later was promoted to sergeant, training and supervising officers in the Western District.

The fact that Wilson was not fired in 2005 tells you all that you need to know about the culture of the BPD over the past decade or so, and about the consequences of hiding the results of its inadequate disciplinary process from the public. Do you believe Wilson would have been retained if disciplinary action was a matter of public record? Neither
do I.

One immutable rule

A police department is not corrupted overnight. Corruption grows unchecked within a police department because of a steady stream of poor decisions. For example, a police officer who should have been fired instead is promoted and assigned to shape the conduct of junior officers.

Extrapolating from documents leaked to the media and from the records of cross-examination of officers in criminal and civil trials over the past several years, I believe the Wilson situation is the tip of the iceberg and represents how corruption spread like the flu virus through the BPD. It wasn’t because there were a few bad apples spoiling the
barrel – it was because poor decisions invisible to the public allowed the number of bad apples to grow to critical mass.

If there is one immutable rule of government, it is this: Our ability to hold our leaders accountable for their performance is directly proportional to the transparency of what they do on our behalf. You must assume that if they can hide a problem, they will. Baltimore just learned a very tough lesson on what happens when the important
work of maintaining the discipline of a big-city police department is shrouded in secrecy.

Years ago, the General Assembly decided that protecting police officers found guilty of misconduct from public embarrassment, and from having the adequacy of discipline second-guessed, was more important than the transparency of the disciplinary process. That terrible decision should be revisited.

[Published as a guest commentary by The Daily Record on February 22, 2018 but not posted to my blog until June 1, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]