On September 5, the Washington Post reported on an ongoing lawsuit between Montgomery County and its police union, potentially undercutting the intent of Anton’s Law.
Anton’s Law, passed in 2021 as a part of the Maryland General Assembly’s sweeping police reform package, removed most police misconduct records as classified personnel records under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA). The Law took effect on October 1, 2021. In Montgomery County, Alexa Renehan requested records relating to a police complaint she had made in 2010:
Renehan… first requested the disciplinary records of Montgomery County police officer John J. Gloss in January [of 2022]… Now, Renehan wanted to know exactly what became of her complaint, along with any others against Gloss. A few weeks after her request, she received from the police department an estimated fee of $63,030, which she learned… was based on the size of Gloss’s disciplinary file, which spanned five cases, 2,711 pages, and dozens of hours of audio and video…The county estimated it would take 1,315 hours to review and redact the material. Maryland law allows agencies to charge for costs incurred in releasing records.
In April, Renehan negotiated with the Montgomery County Police Department to “reduce the scope of her request,” paying $270 for 174 pages of records. However, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, the union representing Montgomery officers, reached an agreement with Montgomery allowing it to “inspect internal affairs files and object to their release before a member of the public can see them,” creating a delay in accommodating Renehan’s request. Moreover, after its review, the union believed that some documents requested detailed “allegations that were not sustained.”
As a result, Lodge 35 filed a lawsuit against Montgomery County, preventing the disclosure of Renehan’s requested records on July 5th. Anton’s Law, however, does not prevent the disclosure of unsustained allegations:
[The union’s lawsuit] said it would be “contrary to the public interest” to release records of allegations that were not sustained. The same argument was made to lawmakers as they debated Anton’s Law, but its proponents disagreed. The legislature declined to adopt a narrower version of the law that would have excluded non-sustained complaints from disclosure.
To date, Renehan’s request is still pending, and several as-yet unfiled motions in court may further delay the process. Coincidentally, police misconduct file requests are consistently at the forefront of counties’ minds. During the 2022 MACo Summer Conference, county representatives discussed the many roadblocks and best practices for accommodating body-worn camera footage requests made under the Maryland Public Information Act.
In her presentation, Chief Solicitor Hilary Ruley, representing Baltimore City’s Law Department, focused more broadly on the issues associated with producing police misconduct records, especially the work hours required by attorneys to ensure disclosed records do not reveal sensitive information concerning juveniles, certain criminal records, personal privacy, and other matters. If records requests are not limited in scope, as in Alexa Renehan’s situation, the costs incurred by counties can be vast – Chief Solicitor Ruley pointed to a single police misconduct-related request requiring over 1,300 hours and $700,000 to complete.
In a separate presentation, Assistant Attorney General Sara Klemm, representing the Maryland Public Information Act Ombudsman, offered the following advice to counties accommodating MPIA requests for police misconduct files:
- Help narrow the scope of broad requests.
- Provide requesters with detail about the work involved in preparing [materials].
- Seek assistance from the Public Access Ombudsman – dispute resolution in the context of voluntary, confidential mediation.
Altogether, Anton’s Law substantially increases counties’ workload with respect to police misconduct MPIA requests but does not provide the resources needed to handle these requests. Unsurprisingly, additional investment will be needed to help fulfill the Law’s intent.