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Md. Senate debates allowing disclosure of police misconduct probes

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

Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore, is pushing for the disclosure of information related to allegations of misconduct made against police officers. Opponents of the measure say it will unfairly stain officers who have done nothing wrong and are falsely accused. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

The Maryland Senate took a step Tuesday toward passing legislation aimed at increasing public access to completed internal police investigations, as it narrowly defeated a proposal to ensure allegations of police misconducted deemed “unsubstantiated” would remain confidential.

Sen. Jill P. Carter, the legislation’s chief sponsor, said the proposed carve-out for unsubstantiated complaints would have essentially killed her measure’s goal of internal police investigations available for public review and scrutiny because substantiated complaints are already a matter of public record for the most part.

The legislation would “remove a veil of secrecy that police disciplinary records have been shrouded in,” Carter, D-Baltimore city, told her colleagues. “These are public servants, these are public records and they should be disclosable to the public.”

But Sen. Pamela G. Beidle, who made the ill-fated proposal, said enabling unsubstantiated complaints to become public would unfairly subject to public ridicule officers wrongly accused of misconduct.

False accusations once disclosed cannot be erased in this social media age, said Beidle, D-Anne Arundel.

“I have real concerns about officers and their families,” Beidle said. “You don’t expunge what can go out on the internet.”

The Senate’s 26-21 vote to reject Beidle’s proposal followed vigorous debate regarding the extent to which calls for police reform – which have become national in scope — should reach the internal investigations of Maryland officers accused of misconduct. The Senate was expected to resume debate Tuesday evening on Carter’s measure, Senate Bill 178.

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 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 said.

“Transparency is a value to everyone,” she said during Tuesday’s Senate floor debate. Permitting records of completed investigations to be released would help “build and restore public trust in law enforcement,” Carter added.

Under SB178, 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.

Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., D-Montgomery and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, echoed Carter in saying that “there is just a complete cloak over information” about internal police investigations and that greater transparency will result in greater trust of law enforcement.

But Sen. Chris West criticized Smith for “extolling” the release of unsubstantiated and potentially false accusations against police officers.

The release of “unmeritorious complaints” can “destroy their reputations and destroy their careers,” West, R-Baltimore County, said in support of Beidle’s proposed amendment.

Sen. Robert Cassilly also spoke in support of the proposal, noting that ethics investigations of Maryland senators and delegates are not made public unless a violation is found by the General Assembly’s ethics committee.

“If it doesn’t fit for us, it doesn’t fit for them,” Cassilly, R-Harford, said of police officers.

Sen. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll, said he endorses police reform’s goal of exposing bad officers but said the bill’s disclosure of unsubstantiated claims would destroy the reputations of good officers and compel them to leave the force because an accusation, once aired, is nearly impossible to suppress.

Hough cited Raymond J. Donovan, President Ronald Reagan’s labor secretary who was acquitted of fraud and grand larceny charges in May 1987.

After his acquittal, Donovan said, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”

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 in December 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.

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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