Police accountability is becoming an ever increasing struggle after getting the green light from the Trump administration for heavy handed policing. Even plantation owner Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made rollbacks on federal investigations into police departments under scrutiny for civil rights violations and police brutality. Transparency, a key many are holding up as one of the most important tools of accountability for police. Transparency, something that police chiefs around the country have promised their communities. Well, in an effort to push that transparency, the Maryland Judiciary has removed officers’ names involved in cases from the state’s searchable public court database.
According to the Capital Gazette, the change was noticed Thursday when the names of arresting officers disappeared from cases that the offices were involved with. The judiciary made no announcement and ignored requests seeking comments on the change.
The case search database is a searchable tool provided to the public that contains information about court cases, including defendant information, charges faced, names of prosecutors and defense attorneys, and the names of law enforcement involved in the cases.
It is being reported that the change stems from amendments approved by the standing committee on rules of practice and procedure in June. It is just now being reported that the committee’s annual report eliminated a clause in rule 16-910, “Access to Judicial Records”, that said:
“Unless shielded by a protective order, the name , officer 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.”
According to the rules, officers’ names should still be contained within the case files and accessible from court room kiosks. No such kiosk was available Friday in the Baltimore Circuit Court. In fact, former Baltimore Police Officer Fabian Laronde is spending the weekend in jail after being charged with first-degree assault according to court records. Information surrounding his arrest and which unit or police district originated the charges is not currently available because the Maryland Judiciary stripped plaintiffs from the online court records database. The names of the arresting officers and other cops involved in the case disappeared from the searchable public court database reports the Baltimore Sun.
Anne Arundel County cops claim that they’ve been lobbying for a change in how officers’ names are displayed in the case search but assert the recent change is not the change they were looking for. They began lobbying three years ago but never received a definitive response from the Maryland Judiciary.
“I don’t know why everything has been taken out. That’s not what we wanted. All we asked for was no first names,” said Lt. Ryan Frashure.
The Fraternal Order of Police was also taken aback by the recent change in the system.
“This kind of got blown up,” said Cpl. O’Brien Atkinson, FOP president in Anne Arundel county. “At no time did anybody with the FOP or the department lobby or try to have officers’ full names removed.”
Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has echoed the same sentiments.
The disappearance has created a stir among watchdog groups, attorneys, media advocates and public officials.
“If you’re monitoring arrest history, if you’re looking for patterns, the officer history is pretty critical,” said executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association Rebecca Snyder. “With what we’re seeing, especially in recent events in Baltimore, it seems so short-sighted and ill conceived that they’re taking out officer names at this point, and I don’t really know what prompted that rule.”
The Public Defender’s Office of Maryland did say they were notified of upcoming changes but were never provided details as to the scope of the change.
“We are very concerned about the removal of officers’ names as witnesses from case search,” Melissa Rothstein, spokeswoman for the defender’s office, said. “It will inhibit our ability to effectively represent our clients across the state, and particularly in Baltimore City it will impede the current efforts to improve transparency, which the federal GTTF (Gun Trace Task Force) conviction as well as the consent decree confirmed are urgently needed.”
“Incredibly disconcerting” is what the Common Cause of Maryland called the move. “At any point in time, this would be cause for concern, but in the context of the just concluded GTTF trial this move is egregious and must be overturned,” said the watchdog group.
Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott tweeted that the change was “just insane and needs to be changed back immediately.”
“Our police problems will not be cured by less transparency,” defense attorney C. Justin Brown wrote.
Everyone is seemingly against this change by the Maryland Judiciary. What will it take for a swift walkback of the recent change?