Maryland Court System Arbitrarily Decides Public Should No Longer Have Access To Police Officers' Names

from the reverse-regulatory-capture dept

Supposedly completely of its own volition, Maryland's court system has decided to extend extra rights to law enforcement officers. Going to bat for opacity, the Maryland Judiciary has made it harder for the public to find out what officers are doing (or how often they're being sued). This comes against a backdrop where more sunlight would seem essential, what with several Baltimore police officers facing corruption charges in a wide-ranging investigation that has already netted a handful of convictions and guilty pleas.

Citing a favorite cop excuse, the state's courts have decided the public should be less informed.

Maryland’s Judiciary on Friday defended a decision to remove the names of police officers and other law enforcement authorities from the state’s searchable public online court database, saying the change was made in response to “safety concerns raised by law enforcement.”

The change took effect Thursday, following a decision by a judicial rules committee last June. Officers’ names no longer appear on cases they were involved with, and searches using an officer’s name cannot be performed.

The Judiciary claims this "balances" public access to court information with its "obligation" to protect officers from "potential misuse." It did not cite any actual misuse in defense of its position. Nor did it cite any support from law enforcement agencies or "safety concerns" raised by them. While the Anne Arundel County police admitted to lobbying for a change, all the department had asked for was the removal of first names, not removal of officers' names entirely.

Multiple law enforcement agencies contacted by The Baltimore Sun expressed their concern with the Judiciary's decision.

[T]he Maryland State Police said they had not lobbied for such a change, and the [Baltimore] Police Department said they did not agree with it.

A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan said: “Public information should be public. End of story.”

[...]

Baltimore police said they didn’t lobby for a change and “really don’t see why they got rid of what was already publicly available.”

“We use it too,” chief spokesman T.J. Smith said of the data.

Even more bizarrely, the Judiciary claims this removal only affects "remote access." Supposedly the names of officers can still be accessed by using local court kiosks. This makes no sense. Why would cops be "safer" if their names can only be accessed inside a local court? Wouldn't that make these (apparently imaginary) threats to officer safety much more proximate to the officers affected?

Beyond that, there's the fact that kiosk access is limited. Or, in the case of the Baltimore Circuit Court, kiosks are nonexistent. According to the Sun, the Baltimore court runs searches through an "archaic" computer system (not a kiosk) that does not provide the same search options as its online counterpart.

Local public defenders were unaware officer information was being removed, which seems to be a key oversight in the process. Public defenders are very much a part of the judicial process, yet they were never informed information they need on a daily basis would no longer be available. Already overworked, public defenders will now be forced to visit courts to access officer information and hope that court has kiosks that actually provide the search functions they need.

The Judiciary claims all of this was done in the open and with the consultation of stakeholders. This can't possibly be true since both law enforcement agencies and defense lawyers were apparently unaware of the change until The Baltimore Sun contacted them. The Judiciary's own paper trail suggests this was done under the radar with zero public debate about the rules change.

The committee’s annual report from last year shows that the change was made by eliminating a clause in the section “Access to Judicial Records,” which said, “Unless shielded by a protective order, the name, office address, office telephone number and office e-mail address, if any, relating to law enforcement officers, other public officials or employees acting in their official capacity, and expert witnesses, may be remotely accessible.”

It was unclear whether the change was debated — the rules committee has not posted minutes of its meetings since April 2016.

No one agrees with the Judiciary's change, which is probably why no one was consulted before the change was made. Everyone from city council members to state's attorney candidates to journalists find the change unwarranted, unhelpful, and a serious blow to trust-building efforts between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

This unpopular move from the state judiciary suggests its members will show plenty of deference to law enforcement agencies and officers in the future. And it will continue to do so even when there's plenty of evidence out there showing officers are often untrustworthy, when not completely corrupt. It has a single reason for making this move -- officer safety -- but there's nothing in the judiciary's past that even suggests court records are being used to target police officers. Even local police departments release the names of officers involved in shootings and cases involving apparent excessive force. The Judiciary has decided to roll back transparency at the worst possible time, giving cops extra privileges they weren't even asking for and further damaging the public's trust in their public servants.

Filed Under: law enforcement, maryland, police, secrecy, transparency


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  1. icon
    ECA (profile), 16 Mar 2018 @ 12:26am

    Have to say it..

    Badges?
    What Badges??
    WE DONT NEED NO STINKING BADGES!!

    Im starting to know More about Aussie, Brit, Kiwi Governments then OUR OWN..
    Keep burying everything..get it Deep..

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