ANNAPOLIS, Maryland–After Maryland’s 2016 legislative session gave way to notable criminal justice reform, the ACLU of Maryland is looking to revive some prolonged efforts in improving the community-police relationship that may have fallen to the wayside.
The majority of the Justice Reinvestment Act, which passed in 2016, will not go into effect until Oct. 1, 2017, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is looking to make the most of the 2017 session in the meantime.
“You know the Justice Reinvestment Act was no penicillin,” Toni Holness, public policy director at the ACLU of Maryland, said. “But it did accomplish a number of the reforms that we were looking to see.”
A dense piece of Maryland state legislation, the 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act instituted reforms that would take money out of incarceration and put it into crime prevention, while also shifting the state toward a policy centered on rehabilitation, rather than punishment, for drug offenders.
But civil rights groups like the ACLU of Maryland want more.
The ACLU’s traditional one-pager of legislative priorities has this year grown to two pages, detailing desired changes to bail bond systems, trial boards, pre-trial holding, body camera footage and parole.
Among the organization’s priorities is an amendment to Maryland’s Public Information Act that would allow citizens to follow up with complaints they made against police officers, which fell through last year.
In November of 2009, Teleta Dashiell missed a call from Maryland State Police Sgt. John Maiello.
“Hey, it’s Sergeant Maiello with the state police. Call me back,” Maiello said into the receiver.
The sergeant then began to speak with a colleague and referred to Dashiell using a racial slur.
Here is a link to the recording from the ACLU of Maryland’s website (NOTE: It contains offensive language).
“When I first heard the message, I was angry and very upset,” Dashiell told the ACLU of Maryland. “But I wasn’t that surprised.”
Dashiell filed a complaint with the Maryland State Police following the incident. She wanted to know how the police were responding to her complaint. Seven years later, she is still seeking answers.
The Maryland State Police denied Dashiell any records pertaining to her complaint, calling the records “personnel files,” which are exempt from disclosure under the state’s Public Information Act.
The Maryland State Police left Dashiell with only two words regarding her complaint: appropriately handled.
In 2016, a state House bill would have removed such investigations from the personnel category, making them accessible under the Public Information Act. The bill was withdrawn after receiving an unfavorable report from the Health and Government Operations Committee.
The communications department of the Maryland State Police told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service that it did not have a comment regarding the incident or the legislative efforts.
“That, I think, is a valid inquiry,” said Delegate William Smith, D-Silver Spring, “If an officer has been disciplined and found guilty, we deserve to know.”
For some Maryland police departments, such as in Baltimore County, the Public Information Act is synonymous with policy regarding the footage. The Baltimore County Police Department considers body camera footage part of a “public record” under the Public Information Act and will approve requests for the footage “unless an ongoing investigation merits retention of the film and absent any other exception outlined in the MPIA,” according to the department’s website.
For others, body-worn cameras are in need of entirely new regulations.
“We’re still looking to the legislature to guide us on (body cameras),” said Prince George’s County Inspector General Carlos Acosta. “A general rule is good but, almost always, you’ve got to look at it on a case by case basis.”
There is currently no statewide policy regarding the use of police departments’ body-worn cameras and what should and should not be made available to the public is up for debate.
“There are pros and cons to that technology,” Del. Deborah Rey, R-Lexington Park, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “For me it came down to handling of the data.”
The decision to implement body-worn cameras in Maryland has fallen to individual police departments. If a jurisdiction decides to use cameras, it then must also decide how to handle the resulting footage.
“It’s good that the ACLU is definitely keeping eyes on (legislation of body-worn camera footage),” Rey said. “We just have to make sure we don’t go too far taking away privacy rights of individuals.”
Pre-trial holding, parole changes
The rest of the ACLU’s goals for the upcoming session also revolve around community-police relations. Between pushing for reform within the Public Information Act and advocating for an override of a block that keeps civilians from conducting their own investigations, Holness, public policy director at ACLU of Maryland, said, it’s all about transparency and accountability.
“What the law enforcement community has shown time and again, and especially this past year, is (that) they are unwilling to be accountable to the communities they serve,” Holness said.
“Police officers themselves do not create policies or create legislation,” said Vince Canales, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police. “They’re just there to enforce it.”
The ACLU aims to remove a provision in current Maryland law that allows only sworn law enforcement officers to investigate a complaint against a law enforcement officer that can lead to discipline. While civilian review boards exist, they have no disciplinary power.
The organization will also support legislation against pretrial holding, which imprisons people prior to their hearing dates.
About two-thirds of Maryland’s jail population between 2004 and 2010 were pretrial holdings, according to the Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services, Maryland Correctional Administrators Association.
Under the current bail bond system, those without money to pay for bail are subject to pretrial holding. The ACLU of Maryland says that these bail amounts are excessive and put lower-income individuals at a large disadvantage.
“Commercial bail really is…the highest form of elitism that we have in the criminal justice system,” Holness said. “In a fundamental way it puts freedom for sale.”
Also on the ACLU’s list of priorities is reinstating the possibility of parole for individuals serving life sentences in Maryland.
The governor must approve parole for criminals serving a life sentence in Maryland, which civil rights groups say has made it difficult to get parole. The Maryland chapter of the ACLU is working to remove the governor from the parole process, because it makes the process highly politicized, Holness said.
“Not only is it unfair to defendants, but it really undermines the decision of the judge who decided the sentence to begin with,” Holness said.
The ACLU sued Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and other state officials in April over the constitutionality of Maryland’s parole system for criminals serving a life sentence they were given as juveniles.
The case is awaiting a hearing for a motion to dismiss, Holness said.
The ACLU is also looking to put more civilians on police trial boards.