In a Blow to Transparency, Maryland Courts Remove Police Officer Info From Database
As Baltimore’s new police commissioner Darryl De Sousa calls for transparency in the wake of revelations of unprecedented police corruption, the Maryland Judiciary scrubbed the names of all arresting officers from Maryland Case Search, the public searchable database of cases, making it much harder for citizens, journalists, and even Internal Affairs detectives to root out wrong-doing among officers.
It is now impossible to search for cases by a specific officer or to see which officers have worked together on cases.
“It’s very important for transparency in the court system and the whole justice system,” said Matthew Stubenberg, the IT director for Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, who maintains a copy of the database at cluesearch.org. “Everybody else is labeled on Case Search: The defendant’s there, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, sometimes the witnesses, so it seems really odd to just anonymize one person in this whole case.”
David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of The Wire puts it in much stronger terms.
“How dare you ask anybody to cooperate with the police, come into court, and do so publicly, when you, a sworn officer, an armed officer, a member of a police agency that has significant resources to protect—you’re afraid to be publicly identified,” said Simon over the phone. “It’s not just hypocrisy. It’s cowardice.”
Simon is outraged but not surprised. “There’s almost an inevitability to it,” he said. “There’s been an entrenchment in public information in Maryland for the last decade or so.”
Still, the sense of timing is not lost on defense attorneys who are representing victims of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF). The Case Search scrub happened exactly one year after members of GTTF were arrested on federal racketeering charges that shed light on the scope of corruption within the Baltimore Police Department.
“From a defense attorney point of view, we need the opportunity to have Case Search because we found out recently that for the past three years that this current administration would refuse to call officers like [GTTF member Jemell] Rayam because they knew that he had issues in credibility and they would hide him,” said Ivan Bates, who is currently challenging Marilyn Mosby in the race for state’s attorney. “The Case Search allowed defense attorneys an opportunity to find an officer to make sure that they can potentially be called as a witness.”
Mosby’s office declined to comment.
Bates said this information is vital to prosecutors, to keep them from inadvertently withholding information from the defense that could help clear a defendant—a so-called Brady violation.
The ACLU also sees the connection to the GTTF case—not having remote access to the database makes it harder to connect the dots between officers who often work together.
“In part, the police corruption that was revealed in the GTTF trial could not have occurred but for—and was significantly enabled—the rules that make police disciplinary records secret,” said Senior Staff Attorney David Rocah, adding that this move is just another layer in the “secrecy surrounding [police] records.”
“We don’t see a problem with the information that was already available being on the website,” Baltimore Police Department spokesperson T.J. Smith told the Beat and The Real News over email. He later followed up in a tweet which said, “we believe [Case Search is] an intricate part of transparency.”
Larry Smith, a former Internal Affairs Department (IAD) detective for the Baltimore Police, says that even IAD used Case Search: “Even as investigators, I used Case Search and I know other people in Internal Affairs used Case Search.”
The department had other tools for looking at cases but “Case Search was much more user-friendly for like, ‘Let me see who his partners are in this case,’” Larry Smith said. “I worked on cases at home and I didn’t have access to internal databases at home. I used Case Search at home if I was brainstorming or trying to come up with questions for an interview.”
“[In Case Search], you can go back to pretty much every arrest an officer has made and that’s important,” said Josh Insley, a defense attorney and part of a political action committee opposing Mosby. “You can see if they were involved in controversial cases. You can see if they were involved in cases that were overturned by the appellate courts for bad searches and things like that…What it really does is it stops people from investigating the spread of this corruption from the Gun Trace Task Force. It puts all of it behind a steel curtain.”
It’s important for lawyers and citizens to be able to make these connections because even IAD, Larry Smith says, is not allowed to connect various complaints brought against an individual officer in order to uncover a larger pattern of behavior. When he was investigating an officer who had numerous complaints that demonstrated a pattern of behavior, he was not allowed to make the connections.
“We could not wrap all the complaints into one piece and do a patterns and practice case. We were told we had to take each one individually that we couldn’t put them altogether,” Larry Smith said.
But with Case Search, he—and the public— could “also look to see who were his partners that day because a lot of the complaints were not against just one officer but sometimes three or four and you just saw the same names over and over again.”
For instance, when Det. Sean Suiter was murdered the day before he was set to testify about the 2010 arrest of Umar Burley, a federal indictment revealed that Suiter, GTTF’s Wayne Jenkins and another officer called a sergeant who came to help plant heroin after Burley’s car crashed into another car, killing its driver. Case Search quickly revealed the other officers working that case and The Real News and other outlets were able to identify that officer as Ryan Guinn, who was subsequently, if briefly, suspended.
The rules committee of Maryland’s top court made the change with no public announcement before making the change. In a statement, the Judiciary said it made the changes “in response to personal safety concerns raised by law enforcement” and stressed that the rule change only limited “remote access” to the information, meaning the database with officers’ names is still accessible at the circuit courthouse. When Sun reporter Justin Fenton went to the Baltimore City Circuit Court, there was no available access terminal to review the information.
“The burden will fall on people of limited means,” Insley said. “If you don’t have transportation to the court house, you don’t have the money to spend 50 cents a page, you can’t remember exactly when it happened, you can’t hire a lawyer to go scour the stuff for you.”
The move to change the rule apparently began with a push by the Anne Arundel County Fraternal Order of Police to remove first names from the records, but their spokesperson told the Baltimore Sun that they did not push for the removal of full names. “At no time did anybody with the F.O.P. or the department lobby or try to have officers’ full names removed.”
“Even removing the first name would be equally wrong and illegitimate,” Rocah countered. “There are lots of police officers with the last name Smith or Jones. The whole point of this is to be able to know what particular officers have done.”
Larry Smith, one of those officers with a common name, says he never felt the need to be shielded on a public database. Civilians meanwhile, have “ their complete, everything, full name, address, date of birth,” in the database, he said. “I would be much more concerned if I was a civilian than an officer.”
“Police officers and public officials who are testifying in court are not similarly situated to any other witness,” Rocah said. “They are professional witnesses. Unlike every other witness in court, they are being paid by the public. The public has a critical interest in knowing what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. And that interest cannot be served or vindicated if their names are taken out of the online databases.”
Long before the change, Stubenberg, of the Volunteer Lawyers, created the Client Legal Utility Engine (CLUE) which “scraped” the Case Search site daily—effectively creating a backup and a more accessible database of more than 700,000 cases from three counties including Baltimore City. The CLUE database removed the names of defendants, who are, he says, far more vulnerable than police and whose information is provided on the court’s database.
While it preserves the information as of Thursday, it will not be able to include officer information going forward, unless the rule is changed.
And Rocah stresses that because this is simply a rule, the policy could be changed back immediately.
“It’s as wrong as any decision can be and it can be and ought to be changed today and it wouldn’t require a rule change to restore access. This problem could be fixed literally today,” Rocah said.