Opinion: Baltimore County Police subvert Anton’s Law, accountability objectives

New department policy runs counter to law to hold police accountable for use of lethal force

Published on: January 03, 2023 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: January 03, 2023 9:48 AM EST

Photo collage of police officer holding baton, walking away in between two close-up images of folders full of documents, with an excerpt from the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021 in background.
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Anton’s Law grew out of public outrage about the use of lethal force by police officers in Maryland, particularly the brutal killing of Anton Black, an unarmed Black teenager, by Officer Thomas Webster IV on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on Sept. 15, 2018. Anton was a father and a star athlete, loved by his family and friends. He had a bright future.

Officer Webster should never have held a position in Maryland law enforcement. Webster had 30 use-of-force complaints on his record when he was an officer in Dover, Delaware. He was ultimately fired after being arrested for kicking and breaking the jaw of an unarmed Black man, Lateef Dickerson. Nonetheless, he was certified to work in Maryland and hired by the Greensboro Police Department because the town’s police chief falsified Webster’s records.

Anton’s Law, which went into effect on Oct. 1, 2021, changed the Maryland Public Information Act to allow the disclosure of records related to the investigation of police misconduct. Previously, such records were barred from public disclosure, which thwarted efforts by families and communities harmed by police misconduct to hold officers and departments accountable. The General Assembly recognized that if records of investigations into police misconduct were kept secret, the public had no way of ensuring that those investigations were conducted fairly, thoroughly and effectively. They had no way to hold agencies accountable when they were not.

Anton’s Law is as crucial to ensure transparency and accountability in policing in Baltimore County as it is across the state. But a newly announced Baltimore County Police Department policy subverts those goals and Anton’s Law itself.

The new policy is functionally identical to a side deal negotiated by the Montgomery County Fraternal Order of Police with that county’s government. The FOP in Montgomery County recently filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court that seeks to gut Anton’s Law by having it ruled unconstitutional. This is an outrageous, coordinated strategy to undermine Anton’s Law statewide through lawsuits and other actions, setting dangerous local precedents intended to weaken the law.

Baltimore County must act to protect the much-needed accountability and transparency Anton’s Law requires.

The new BcoPD policy, like the side deal being used by the FOP in Montgomery County, seeks to improperly block the release of internal-affairs investigations authorized by Anton’s Law and to ignore the changes made by Anton’s Law. It violates pre-existing provisions of the MPIA by treating the records of investigations into police misconduct differently than all other police investigations.

Shamelessly, the new policy requires that the county police notify the FOP any time records of a police misconduct investigation are sought and gives the requested records to the FOP to review prior to their release. This is done despite language in Anton’s Law that clearly states an officer who is the subject of records sought is not to be notified until the records are actually “inspected” (meaning released).

The goal of this Baltimore County Police anti-accountability policy is to facilitate baseless lawsuits by the FOP seeking to block disclosure, by treating the police union as additional custodians of the records, able to make discretionary decisions about release that are properly assigned to public officials.

Baltimore County has a long history of racially biased policing and still ranks at the top of police-related deaths in Maryland (Seventh Report to the State of Maryland - Deaths Involving a Law Enforcement Officer.) Of the 60 civilian complaints of police misconduct in Baltimore County last year, only 7% were pursued by BCoPD and none of the complaints of unnecessary force were upheld. Without access to misconduct investigation records, the community cannot determine whether investigations into these incidents are comprehensive and unbiased. Given Baltimore County’s disproportionately high rate of excessive force used by police against Black and Brown people (67% in 2021), this new policy is unconscionable, protects racially biased policing and shields police misconduct.

The new BCoPD policy is a blatant attempt to gut Anton’s Law. Failure to hold law enforcement accountable — as required by law — places the burden of seeking information on grieving families and those impacted by police brutality. But the burden also falls on the residents of Baltimore County who pay millions of dollars every year in civil damages for police misconduct.

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The county executive and County Council should act immediately to stop the FOP from interfering with implementation of Anton’s Law. County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. vowed to strengthen transparency and accountability in the Baltimore County Police Department. Now we urge him to stand by his commitment.

Lorena Diaz, Niesha McCoy and Nicholas Smith are members of the Baltimore County Coalition for Police Accountability.