Law enforcement officers no longer show up in MD court database, and reporters are rightly mad

Share the News

A screenshot from the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website.

If you were shocked by the revelations in the Gun Trace Task Force case and, more broadly, care about living in an open society, a new change to the Maryland Judiciary’s searchable database raises a few red flags.

The names of arresting officers no longer appear in individual cases, and users are no longer able to search the database using a police officer’s name. Here’s WBAL-TV’s Jayne Miller with the timely example of Daniel Hersl, a former member of the Gun Trace Task Force who was recently convicted on racketeering, robbery and other charges.

The Sun‘s Justin Fenton was one of the first to notice the change. Fenton and Miller are two of the biggest names in journalism in this town, and they and others have been going in on this limiting of transparency.

Fenton wrote a story on the change for The Sun and got reactions from City Councilman Brandon Scott and two candidates for State’s Attorney, Ivan Bates and Thiru Vignarajah, all of whom agreed this is a bad thing.

Here’s what Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, told The Sun: “If you’re monitoring arrest history, if you’re looking for patterns, the officer history is pretty critical. 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.”

In a statement released this afternoon, the Maryland chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists called the decision “a step backward for transparency and accountability in Maryland” and urged the judiciary to reverse it.

“Having officers’ names in the database allowed attorneys, journalists and other members of the public to observe, for example, the arrest patterns of law enforcement officers and which officers worked together on arrests,” the statement says. “Removing this information seriously inhibits journalists’ abilities to report on law enforcement. The timing of this change is especially galling, given the recent guilty pleas and convictions of numerous officers in the Baltimore Police Department who would commit crimes while on duty—and as several journalists in Baltimore have noted, this change makes it significantly more difficult for them to report on those officers’ histories and connections.”

The Baltimore Beat spoke with David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, who said the courts could easily restore access by changing the rule back. Though not sure if the change was illegal, Rocah also criticized

“Police officers and public officials who are testifying in court are not similarly situated to any other witness,” Rocah told the Beat. “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.”

The change is likely linked to a decision in June by the standing committee on rules of practice and procedure. Anne Arundel County police told The Sun they had been lobbying for such a change for the last three years, but a department spokesman said they only wanted first names removed.

“I don’t know why everything has been taken out,” spokesman Lt. Ryan Frashure told The Sun. “That’s not what we wanted.”

The Fraternal Order of Police there was also bewildered.

“At no time did anybody with the F.O.P. or the department lobby or try to have officers full names removed,” union president Cpl. O’Brien Atkinson told the paper.

Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith released the following statements to the Baltimore Beat:

The Maryland Judiciary released a statement saying the process for changing the rule was open to the press and the public and that the information could still be obtained through the clerk at the courthouse.

This post has been updated.

Brandon Weigel

Share the News