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Md. ACLU Not Satisfied With Proposed Police Transparency Bill

Prince George’s County Police Chief Henry P. Stawinski III. File photo

A bill that would increase transparency into law enforcement investigations is back before the Maryland General Assembly, after failing to get a vote in the 2019 legislative session. 

The bill, which took the name “Anton’s Law” last year, was pushed by the family of 19-year-old Anton Black, who died in police custody in September 2018, after being chased by three officers and a civilian. The family had to wait for over four months to get basic documents regarding Black’s death. 

It was only after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) became involved that the state medical examiner released the teenager’s autopsy. 

Now, new House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and the Legislative Black Caucus say they are making the police transparency legislation a priority. 

In a House Judiciary Committee work session on Thursday, the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and Maryland Sheriffs’ Association presented a draft bill for discussion, which outlines a new process for how the public receives information about complaints against law enforcement agencies. 

Under current Maryland law, if someone files a complaint of police misconduct, they cannot know how the department investigated the complaint — only the outcome. Body camera footage, investigatory files and accusations against the officer fall under a “personnel record” exemption in Maryland’s Public Information Act, officials said. 

But Maryland civil rights groups say that the public has a right to know if a complaint is being adequately investigated — like whether witnesses are being contacted or body camera footage is being reviewed. 

The chiefs’ and sheriffs’ draft bill would change the law by allowing discretionary disclosure of complaints of police misconduct involving death, shootings, sexual assault, discrimination and several other forms of misconduct. 

“I want to provide this information. We want this transparency,” Prince George’s County Police Chief Henry P. Stawinski III told the committee during the work session. 

But the Maryland chapter of the ACLU says the draft doesn’t provide enough transparency. They say complaints of every type should be disclosed to the public, including unsustained complaints. 

Generally, the outcome of complaints falls into four different categories:

— Sustained, meaning there is sufficient evidence to prove allegations;

— Unsustained, meaning there is not sufficient evidence to either prove or disprove allegations;

— Exonerated, meaning the incident occurred, but law enforcement acted lawfully;

— Unfounded, meaning the allegation is not factual or did not occur.

According to Toni Holness of the ACLU, unsustained complaints should be disclosed to the public partially because many complaints are only unsustained because the person filing the complaint was intimidated or died, and the investigation was never completed. 

Holness says disclosing unsustained complaints would allow law enforcement agencies to show the evidence or lack of evidence justifying their decisions.

“This is the department’s opportunity to show they are making good decisions even when they don’t sustain complaints,” Holness said during the work session. 

But Stawinski told the committee he is concerned about how this will be used against police officers. 

“We don’t think it’s appropriate to put things that we didn’t do or we can’t prove into the public sphere,” Stawinski said. “Why should you have to contend with people pointing fingers at you for things that have been disproved with confident investigations?”

Furthermore, the ACLU wants disclosure of information to be mandated in Maryland, not discretionary, as it currently is in the draft legislation. 

Last year, California passed a major police transparency bill, giving the public access to internal investigations, including body camera footage, of police shootings and other serious incidents statewide. 

Holness says Maryland’s law should be modeled after California’s.

Still, lawmakers and stakeholders say the draft is a good foundation to build upon. 

“We are only in the second day of the session,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City). “We still have a bit more time.”

Holness says the ACLU plans to make suggestions and edits to the chiefs and sheriffs’ draft legislation and will work to find a compromise.

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Md. ACLU Not Satisfied With Proposed Police Transparency Bill