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Md. Senate bill would permit disclosure of police misconduct probes

Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore City. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore City. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Saying the legislation would help uncover law enforcement’s bad apples, a Baltimore state senator urged her colleagues Thursday to pass legislation that would remove documents relating to police misconduct investigations from the list of “personnel records” automatically exempt from disclosure under the Maryland Public Information Act.

Sen. Jill P. Carter said her bill was spurred by the alleged in-police-custody killing of a 19-year-old Black man by Eastern Shore police officers, including one who was allegedly hired despite a record of violent conduct in earlier law enforcement jobs. Carter, a Democrat, has dubbed her legislation Anton’s Law in honor of the victim, Anton Black.

Removing misconduct investigations from MPIA’s personnel records exemption would subject details of an officer’s actions to public scrutiny and prevent misbehaving officers from finding continued employment in law enforcement, Carter told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, on which she sits.

“It should not require a special investigation … for the public to learn of misconduct and coverups within police departments,” Carter said. “Sadly, this is the case routinely.”

Black’s 2018 death while handcuffed and prone was eerily similar to George Floyd’s last spring under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death touched off nationwide protests and calls for police reform, while Black’s has drawn far less publicity beyond the towns of Greensboro, Ridgely and Centreville, which had police officers involved in the killing, according to the family’s lawsuit against the police and towns.

The lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, alleges the police officers’ use of excessive and deadly force violated Black’s constitutional right against unreasonable seizures. In addition, the lawsuit claims that the Greensboro Police Department negligently hired officer Thomas Webster IV despite a record of violence in his career.

Anton Black. Black's heart condition and mental illness were significant factors in his "sudden cardiac death" during a struggle with law enforcement officers on Maryland's Eastern Shore, according to an autopsy report. cessive force on the 19-year-old before his Sept. 15 death in Caroline County. (LaToya Holley via AP)

Anton Black, whose family has filed a lawsuit saying excessive use of force violated his rights. Black died in 2018 while prone and handcuffed by police. A medical examiner’s autopsy report said that Black’s heart condition and mental illness were significant factors in his “sudden cardiac death” during a struggle with law enforcement officers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a finding disputed by Black’s family. (LaToya Holley via AP)

Under the proposed Anton’s Law, Senate Bill 178, each police department’s custodian of the requested documents would retain discretion under the MPIA to deny the information request if disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, interfere with an investigation, endanger an individual’s life or reveal a confidential source.

Speaking in support of the bill, an ACLU of Maryland attorney said permitting the discretionary disclosure of police misconduct investigations would  be “an absolutely necessary first step” toward addressing “the veil of secrecy” surrounding them

Without passage of Anton’s Law, police departments can tell people seeking documents of a misconduct investigation that they cannot be released because they are personnel records and that those seeking the information should “trust us. We did the right thing,” David Rocah told the committee.

“That is not an acceptable state of affairs … and not a way to create or maintain trust” in the police, said Rocah, a senior attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Maryland chapter.

David Morris, on behalf of Maryland police chiefs and sheriffs associations, told the committee that the personnel records exception is too strict in that investigations of police shootings and use of force resulting in death or serious injury are of significant public concern and should be disclosable subject to the department’s statutory discretion.

However, investigations of officer misconduct short of gunfire or serious injury should still qualify as nondisclosable personnel records unless the complaint has been sustained, Morris said.

“It is equally important that we protect the reputations of the officers from frivolous types of complaints,” Morris added. “We need to protect the reputations of the officers from secondary dissemination of those types of reports.”

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger also endorsed the disclosure of police misconduct investigations that have been sustained by the department. He said “mere allegations” of misconduct should remain protected from disclosure as a personnel record.

But Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III, a committee member, said permitting unsustained complaints to escape public disclosure and scrutiny would have well-served Bull Connor, whose tenure as public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s was marked by police brutality against Blacks, whose complaints he rejected.

“The bad apples would be allowed to continue on,” said Sydnor, D-Baltimore County.

Carter cited reports from civil rights groups, including the ACLU of Maryland, that an overwhelming majority of complaints of police misconduct in Maryland are not sustained —  including allegations of harassment and false imprisonment —  and would therefore not be disclosable under the proposal offered by Morris and Shellenberger.

“The devil, all of the abuse and all of the ugliness, is actually in that large body of unsustained complaints because too many law enforcement agencies, when they conduct these investigations in secret, don’t have to disclose any of it and so this is why so many complaints go unsustained.”

Webster is a named defendant in the lawsuit with Ridgely Police Chief Dennis Manos and Centreville police officer Dennis Lannon – the three officers who allegedly seized Black on Sept. 15, 2018. Another defendant is former Greensboro Police Chief Michael Petyo for his allegedly negligent hiring of Webster.

The Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission decertified Webster as a police officer in July 2019 after its investigation revealed nearly 30 “use of force “ incidents from Webster’s time in Dover, Delaware, that were not disclosed on his police application in Maryland.

Petyo, who quit his police post during the state’s investigation of Webster, pleaded guilty in 2019 to misconduct in office for having lied on Webster’s application for certification.

Caroline County Circuit Judge Paul M. Bowman sentenced Petyo to two years in prison, all suspended, and three years’ supervised probation.

Black died from positional asphyxia, according to the complaint. However, the state medical examiner’s office attributed Black’s death to a congenital heart defect and his mental health issues.

The complaint said the medical examiner’s finding was erroneous and led to Caroline County State’s Attorney Joseph Riley’s decision in January 2019 not to prosecute the officer’s for homicide.

The case is docketed at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore as Jennell Black et al. v. Thomas Webster IV et al., No. 1:20-cv-03644-CCB.

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