As U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown (D) prepares to take over as Maryland’s attorney general more than a month from now, he’s hearing suggestions from people on how they hope he manages the office.
Criminal justice advocates, attorneys and residents want Brown, who will become the state’s first Black AG, to continue the policies or improve the operations of the office currently held by Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), speak out when necessary and support proposed policies when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Several people interviewed said they want the attorney general’s office to become more visible in police-involved shootings.
The legislature passed sweeping police reform bills last year that included the creation of a unit within the attorney general’s office to investigate police-involved incidents that lead to the death of a resident, or injuries that could result in a person dying. Formally called the Independent Investigations Division, it works alongside state police to investigate situations that could involve vehicle pursuits, the treatment of people in police custody, use-of-force occurrences and shootings.
Investigators complete a report and send it to a local state’s attorney’s office, which makes the decision whether a case should be prosecuted.
“Our police reform laws aren’t as strong as they should be,” said Joanna Silver, co-chair of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition’s policy committee. “We want [the laws] to be interpreted in a way that protects members of the community as much as possible. We think [attorney general representatives] can advocate to the General Assembly for that office to have broader powers as well to be able to make recommendations to prosecutions.”
Silver said the state attorney general’s office should intervene in a Montgomery County case that involves a measure state lawmakers passed last year that allows public access of an officer’s disciplinary records. The legislation is named after Anton Black, 19, who died after being held in police custody on the Eastern Shore in 2018.
When the county was ready to provide those records to a resident this summer, the police union filed a complaint in court the next day, citing an officer’s privacy over the public’s right to know.
A similar case is taking place in Baltimore County, where police policy was changed to allow the police union to be notified within two businesses day when a request is made through the Maryland Public Information Act to obtain an officer’s disciplinary records, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Silver said Brown’s office should intervene in the Montgomery County case “to ensure that the suit does not invalidate any aspects of Anton’s Law.”
Heather Warnken also said the state’s criminal justice laws could be stronger.
Warnken, executive director at the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said Brown can use a “big bullhorn” to inform the public on how the office could change how prosecutorial powers are utilized.
“The A.G. can pursue more of a carceral approach to public safety, or really be courageous about throwing support behind the completely different strategy to public safety that decriminalizes and builds up community-based resourses that we know must be built up if we are going to effectively address and reduce violence,” she said.
Warnken did praise Brown’s transition team as diverse in terms of race and expertise, pointing to Michael Pinard, co-director of the clinical law program at the University of Maryland in College Park. Pinard will serve as a co-chair on the public safety policy team.
Warnken said Pinard participated with her on a recent panel discussion at the University of Baltimore’s law school.
“I was not surprised to see someone like Michael Pinard put on that team,” she said. “I was definitely pleased to see some really thoughtful voices on that list that’ll be having [Brown’s] ear in helping to shape and guide where his administration is headed.”
Ombudsman in the office
One piece of legislation Brown’s office will be asked to review deals with creating an ombudsman position to oversee the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS).
Some of the proposed duties for an ombudsman when responding to a complaint include:
- Review and assess DPSCS policies, mental health services and educational programs.
- Inspect any facility to monitor its condition.
- Resolve conflicts through mediation or other methods.
- Investigate inmate grievances.
“If the ombudsman determines that an employee or agent of an agency acted in a manner warranting criminal charges or disciplinary proceedings, the ombudsman shall refer the matter to appropriate authorities,” according to the legislation presented in this year’s legislative session.
Sen. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) will sponsor the legislation again when the 90-day legislative session begins in January. Although the legislation hasn’t passed the last two times when introduced, Hettleman said she’s “cautiously optimistic.”
One reason, she said, comes from new executive leadership in Brown and Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D), who share similar philosophies.
Frosh, a Democrat, and current Gov. Larry Hogan (R), didn’t “see eye to eye,” Hettleman said.
“I think that Anthony Brown is coming in at an important time with fresh eyes and fresh ideas on how he wants this big firm [the attorney general’s office] to operate,” she said. “We have a new administration and a new day to educate my colleagues about the issues.”
The senator has some support from the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform, a volunteer organization that pushes for policy changes in jails and prison.
It will host a virtual discussion Dec. 3 to offer insight on why an ombudsman is needed in Maryland. The guest speaker will be Joanna Carns, former director of the Washington State Office of the Corrections Ombuds.
Olinda Moyd, who co-chairs the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform’s Behind the Walls workgroup, said individuals recently released from prison will talk about their experiences and challenges they faced while locked up.
“We hear from many that the inmate grievance process does not work. The process is a nonfunctioning entity,” said Moyd, a retired attorney who worked in the Washington, D.C., public defender’s office for 30 years and now teaches at American University Washington College of Law. “The Department of Corrections does not notify the public or [inmate] population to what’s going on. This position is sorely needed.”
Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said in an email last week that the office hopes Brown seeks “to redress the injustices that fuel racial disparities and perpetuate mass incarceration throughout the state. OPD (Office of Public Defender) encourages the development and support of community-based solutions that combat poverty, create economic opportunity and ensure the protection of fundamental rights of all persons throughout Maryland.”