Prince George’s County Police Resist Release of Misconduct Records, Despite Law Change

Police
Photo from stock.adobe.com.

By ALLISON MOLLENKAMP

The Prince George’s County Police Department has refused to disclose police misconduct records, despite a new state law that was intended, according to its sponsor, to open such records to the public and the media.

Lawmakers and advocates for the legislation, known as Anton’s Law, said its intent was always for public disclosure of these records, which were previously hidden from the public.

The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service sent a public records request earlier this month to the Prince George’s County Police Department requesting records of complaints against department officers and investigations of officer misconduct.

Prince George’s Associate County Attorney John Mitchell denied the request, writing:  “There is a common misconception that these records are now open for public review. That is not actually true.”

Police misconduct records are now considered investigative and subject to discretionary denial by Maryland law enforcement agencies, according to the state Public Information Act manual.

“It is not in the public interest to release these files,” Mitchell wrote in denying the request.

Mitchell declined to explain on the record why disclosing the records would not be in the public interest.

A representative for the Prince George’s County Police Department declined to comment. Prince George’s County Attorney Rhonda Weaver and County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) also did not respond to requests for comment.

Anton’s Law, passed in the 2021 legislative session, was designed to increase transparency around police discipline, said bill sponsor Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City). The law also tightened requirements for no-knock search warrants and instituted other new restrictions for search warrants.

The Legislature passed the law and then overrode a veto from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). The law took effect Oct. 1.

Carter called Prince George’s County’s denial “improper,” and part of a pattern from the county.

“It seems they intend to use that same, arrogant, above the law, modus operandi,” Carter wrote to the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service in a text message.

Carter said the Legislature thought about the impact of the law before passing it.

“The public has no trust in the integrity of these secret investigations now. They have no faith that justice will be done. Disclosure would allow us to see that complaints are taken seriously and fully investigated,” Carter wrote.

During public testimony in January, the Fraternal Order of Police, Maryland State Lodge, argued that the release of the records could hamper police work.

“Exposing these personnel files will only serve to embarrass law enforcement officers for prior conduct, regardless of whether that officer has even been adjudicated as guilty of what was previously charged,” a lodge official wrote in materials presented to the Legislature.

Any release of misconduct records would include information about whether an officer was cleared of misconduct allegations. Carter said disclosing the records will allow the public to see whether the decision to clear an officer was justified.

Carter also noted that she believes disclosure would benefit people who might file complaints. “They are currently afraid of police retaliation. It is in their interest to have their complaints made public as a safeguard from retaliation and abuse,” she said.

The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service have sent identical public records requests seeking records of complaints and investigations of misconduct to more than 100 law enforcement agencies across Maryland.

At the time of publication, the Prince George’s County Police Department was the only agency to offer a blanket denial in response to those requests.

Several agencies have indicated that they plan to release records of police misconduct. One agency — the Taneytown Police Department — has already disclosed investigative records in response to a request from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said the statute doesn’t “clearly affirmatively entitle the public to access,” but instead attempts to close a loophole in the state’s Public Information Act.

He called the justification offered by Mitchell, the Prince George’s County associate attorney, a “plausibly defensible interpretation of what the words say on the page.”

But, LoMonte said, Prince George’s County’s justification for not releasing police misconduct records goes against the intent of the law and of the exemption cited.

Anton’s Law, also known as the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, re-categorized police misconduct records from personnel to investigative records.

Personnel records are not open to public inspection under Maryland’s public records law, but investigative records can be released at the discretion of a police agency.

An agency may decide not to release investigative records if they believe the release would be “contrary to the public interest.” But if an investigation is closed, an agency needs a “more particularized factual basis” for why the release would not be in the public interest, according to Maryland’s Public Information Act manual.

“In general, the investigative exemption to public records laws is supposed to be for ongoing investigations where the request would disclose something confidential that ruins the investigation,” LoMonte said.

Anton’s Law also opened the records to requests from the people directly involved — such as a complainant — and from certain high level state attorneys. It exempts records of minor rule violations where an officer was not interacting with the public.

When releasing police misconduct records, agencies are required to redact certain personal information.

A representative for Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) said his office has not issued an opinion or advice letter with guidance on how the law should be interpreted.

Anton’s Law was part of a group of police and criminal justice laws that passed in 2021 in the wake of George Floyd’s death and a national reckoning around race and policing.

Prince George’s County’s population is majority Black. A report released earlier this year alleged practices within the Prince George’s County Police Department “result in complaints” from officers and civilians and that issues of “racial harassment or discrimination are not being treated appropriately.”

Capital News Service reporter Kassidy McDonald contributed to this report.