Maryland court ruling affirms public’s right of access to information about police misconduct

It’s hard to imagine a subject in which there is a clearer public interest in complete information than the integrity of police. Police are entrusted with the ultimate governmental authority — the authority to take away life and liberty — and if they do so in a dishonest or discriminatory way, the public has a right to know.

Access to the records of official-misconduct cases in Maryland was clouded by a 2011 appeals court ruling that declared internal-investigation files to be confidential and exempt from the Maryland Public Information Act.

The clouds have parted a bit, however, thanks to a new decision from the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court.

In a Jan. 24 ruling, the Court of Appeals decided unanimously that the NAACP is entitled to all documents concerning allegations of racial profiling against officers of the Maryland State Police. This includes access to complaints filed with the police department’s inspector general and the results of any investigations.

The court turned aside the police department’s attempt to categorize the records as confidential personnel records. The key was that the NAACP had agreed to accept the records with the names of the complainants and the officers removed. Once the records were stripped of identifying information, the court ruled, they no longer met the definition of personnel records.

This new decision appears initially hard to square with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals’ ruling in a 2011 case, Montgomery County v. Shropshire. In that case, the court did classify records of misconduct complaints, and the outcome of those complaints, as confidential personnel records.

The apparent distinction is that, in the more recent case, the NAACP made a blanket request for all complaints involving all officers. In the prior case, the requester was seeking the records pertaining to two particular officers arising out of the same car crash.

It’s counterintuitive that a large set of information can be publicly accessible while a smaller subset of the same information can be confidential, but that appears to be the state of the law in Maryland. The takeaway for journalists seeking access to public records should be: If a “targeted” request naming particular individuals is denied, consider broadening the request and making it generic. A generic request — especially with identities redacted — is less likely to be categorized as an intrusion into any specific employee’s privacy.

The Court of Appeals was not asked to consider whether access to complete and unredacted files of racial profiling cases naming the accusers and their targets would be publicly accessible, but that undoubtedly would have presented a tougher case.

Leaving aside the law, a blanket prohibition on disclosing complaints against police (even ones deemed unfounded) would be dangerous policy. If public records revealed that the same officer had been the target of 20 different complaints of racial profiling from 20 different complainants, and every complaint was dismissed, it would raise questions about whether the agency takes complaints seriously. The effectiveness of a police department’s response to complaints can be evaluated only if the public has complete access to the complaint files.

The case is Maryland Department of State Police v. Maryland Conference of NAACP Branches.