A community group in Montgomery County was asked to pay $95,000 for copies of police discipline and complaint records, even though under a 2021 change in Maryland law, the records are no longer automatically private.
Local public defenders in Baltimore seeking the same kind of records, meanwhile, have been told to pay as little as $10 to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, but as much as $224,000 to the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office and nearly $500,000 to the Montgomery County Police Department.
Reporters in Baltimore and Washington and student journalists at the University of Maryland say they have received some internal police records they’ve requested, but also have encountered long delays and huge fees.
Anton’s Law, formally known as the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, went into effect last October 1.
The measure makes internal police discipline and complaint records available to the public, erasing an exemption that had placed them off limits under the Maryland Public Information Act.
Until Anton’s Law was enacted, members of the public could not find out if police officers in Maryland had been disciplined for misconduct or were the subject of numerous complaints reviewed by internal police investigators.
But five months since taking effect, Anton’s Law has not yet lived up to its promise.
Law’s intent: Minimal Fees
Anton’s Law is named for Anton Black, a 19-year-old Black man on the Eastern Shore, who died in 2018 in police custody after he was wrestled to the ground by three white officers and a white civilian bearing a Confederate emblem.
While Black was struggling to breathe, his mother was standing nearby, witnessing the encounter and shouting his name.
Black’s death, several other deaths in police custody in Maryland, and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in police custody helped spur Maryland lawmakers last year to take steps to open up information about police conduct, discipline, complaints and work history.
While some law enforcement agencies are now providing upon request documents that Anton’s Law says are public records, many departments are struggling to comply with the law.
Advocates for police transparency, defense lawyers and journalists say their requests for documents and data have been met with a wide range of responses – with many requests not even acknowledged.
“We would certainly argue that the legislature has determined that these records are in the public interest,” said Deborah Jeon, legal director of the Maryland branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which often relies on PIA requests to obtain government records without incurring high fees.
The legislature’s intent with Anton’s Law, she points out, was minimal fees and expansive public disclosure by Maryland law enforcement agencies.
Little Data is Digitized
Anton’s Law works in tandem with the Maryland Public Information Act, which requires state and local governments to provide broad access to their records.
The MPIA, as it is commonly called, also gives requesters the right to ask for data and documents for free, or minimal cost, if they can show that disclosure serves the public interest.
But the state’s largest police departments say they need more funds and more staffing to comply with new requirements under Anton’s Law.
The upshot is that some law enforcement agencies say they are being compelled to produce reams of documents, videos and audios without new employees or money to pay for the thousands of hours of work they say it takes.
A Montgomery County police official said each record contains between 200 and 5,000 pieces of paper and many also have video and audio.
In Montgomery County, Assistant Police Chief Darren Francke said his department has about 1,500 internal investigative files that could be eligible for disclosure under Anton’s Law.
Each contains between 200 and 5,000 pieces of paper, he said, and many also have video and audio. All must be reviewed to ensure that private information and other data that the MPIA says can be withheld are not inadvertently disclosed.
Little, if any of the paper, is digitized, though the department is beginning to scan documents and create digital files, which eventually will make it much easier to review and release the material.
The department has asked Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich to include more money for Anton’s Law in his budget proposal, which must win approval from the County Council.
Elrich’s budget proposal includes about $427,000 for additional staffing – some civilians and some sworn officers – to improve compliance with Anton’s Law, according to Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Elrich.
“We are working very hard. We have many people assigned to work on this,” Francke said. “It is not our intent not to answer requests.”
Delays in Baltimore
The Baltimore and Prince George’s County police departments are reporting similar issues.
In Baltimore, spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge wrote in an email that the department is “staffing up. . . to better fulfill all MPIA requests.”
But because of the high volume of requests, the department plans to hire an outside firm that will provide contract lawyers to help review the material.
“We’re experiencing some logistical challenges . . . but that should not be misinterpreted as resistance or lack of transparency” – Lindsey Eldridge, Baltimore Police.
“This will come at a cost, either to the department or the requestor, which is determined on a case-by-case basis as provided by state law,” Eldridge continued.
“BPD intends to fulfill these requests and does not intend to redact officer names,” she wrote. “While we’re experiencing some logistical challenges getting this operation off the ground, that should not be misinterpreted as resistance or lack of transparency.”
Fees in PG County
In Prince George’s, where advocates and journalists say the process has been particularly slow, Gina Ford, a spokeswoman for County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, wrote in an email that the “county is working diligently to meet these mandates.”
But she predicted “a greater strain on county resources.” The county plans to continue to charge fees for record requests if they require more than two hours to fulfill, as the Public Information Act allows.
Elena Russo, a spokeswoman for Maryland State Police, wrote that the agency had received 26 requests for personnel records under Anton’s Law since the law took effect.
Police provided information in 17 cases. Out of those, police did not charge for records in 14 cases and had minimal charges in two.
In the remaining case, there was an $1,822 charge for an extensive request, Russo wrote.
Cost of Transparency
When the General Assembly approved Anton’s Law sponsored by state Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore) and Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery), Maryland joined California, Massachusetts. New York and several other states in opening up internal police discipline and complaint records.
Most have pushed ahead with the disclosure laws despite considerable resistance from police unions, and in some cases, police chiefs.
However, some police chiefs around the country said they would welcome more transparency. They too are often prevented from gaining access to officers’ internal personnel records due to contracts negotiated with police unions.
In Maryland, Anton’s Law took effect after legislators overrode Gov.Larry Hogan’s veto of this and several other bills requiring more public accountability from law enforcement.
But the General Assembly may not have fully accounted for how police agencies would react to Anton’s Law.
The legislators did not include additional funding or apply pressure to local governments to fund the law, which may partly explain the resistance to disclosure and the high fees to locate, review and provide the documents.
An MDDC review in 2019 found that Maryland police agencies traditionally charge much higher fees for records than other government entities do.
New Bill by Jill Carter
A bill introduced this session by Sen. Carter proposes to place limits on fees that law enforcement charges for police misconduct records.
Carter wrote in an email that it’s hard to measure the impact of Anton’s Law based on several months.
“What we do know, however, is that some jurisdictions have forestalled specific components from being enacted,” Carter said.
She noted that some police departments charge “astronomical fees” to obtain public information, while others have outright refused its release. She expects her bee bill, if approved, to help.
“I unquestionably believe that, when in its full implementation, Anton’s Law will be the defining standard of police accountability for the rest of the country,” Carter optimistically wrote.
• Miranda S. Spivack is a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. She has written extensively about open government issues for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and the McClatchy newspapers. Follow her on Twitter @mirandareporter and https://www.mirandaspivack.com.
This story was produced by the Maryland Delaware DC Press Association for “Sunshine Week.”
This content was originally published here.