Police Misconduct Files Exempt From FOIA, Maryland Appeals Court Rules
Records of disciplinary measures taken against cops are considered part of their "personnel files"
Via Tim Cushing at TechDirt, a ruling in Maryland that will make it even harder for the public to obtain information about what happens when a complaint against a police officer is filed—even if that complaint is sustained.
The Maryland appeals court has ruled that police departments' internal investigation documents are "personnel files" and thus exempt from public records requests. The decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of Taleta Dashiell, who was seeking a copy of documents related to her own sustained complaint against Sgt. of the Maryland State Police.
The Maryland State Police (MSP) engaged in quite a bit of contortion to avoid fulfilling Dashiell's request. When the officer in charge of responding to public information records requests retired, the MSP returned Dashiell's letters as "addressee unknown," without forwarding it to the new records officer. That the complaint against Maiello was sustained was irrelevant—the department, as permitted by law, treats both unsustained and sustained complaints in the same way when it comes to withholding them from the public.
Police officers' records in Maryland are protected by the state's law enforcement officers' bill of rights—virtually every state has one. In this case, it's the bill of rights that made personnel records confidential. The courts, meanwhile, rubber stamped the police's treatment of its own records of disciplining cops as actually part of the disciplined cops' personnel files.
Not every judge on the appeals court agreed. From the dissent:
The discipline that the law enforcement agency decides to administer to the officer does not directly pertain to employment or the officer's ability to perform his or her job. Plainly put, the officer did what the officer did, regardless of how the law enforcement agency decided to respond. The administration of the discipline is an action of—and thus reflects the judgment of—the law enforcement agency, not the officer. Thus, a record of discipline based on a sustained complaint against a law enforcement officer is not a personnel record; instead, it is among the very types of document that the Public Information Act is designed to make available to the public: a document that reflects how a public agency responds to an employee's proven misconduct.
While the burgeoning race-based police reform movement hasn't yet targeted the various police officers "bills of rights" making transparency and accountability in policing more difficult to achieve, they may be starting to gain some substantive awareness of how police unions contribute to the problem, launching a database earlier this month seeking to collect information on how contracts affect police disciplining in America's hundred largest cities.