Bad behavior by one police officer can make all officers look bad. But when police chiefs use good management that identifies patterns of bad behavior by officers and holds them accountable, they can improve public safety through better relationships with the community. Trust is needed in order to efficiently solve crimes and effectively serve the people. One way we can achieve that trust is by police departments being transparent in their investigations of misconduct complaints.
I worked in internal affairs for many years and know first-hand how important it is for all complaints to be handled with equal diligence. But our current law does not allow police departments to show communities how investigations are handled. That breeds distrust and concern that some complainants are taken more seriously than others. It also means that some officers may be investigated harshly, while others are given a free pass.
In police departments, there are several categories of findings. “Sustained” means that wrongdoing was found, “non-sustained” means that wrongdoing could not be proved or disproved, “exonerated” means the conduct was lawful and justified, and “unfounded” means the accusation was false. That “non-sustained” category is sticky. The investigators did not find you guilty, but they did not find you innocent either. And in most departments, the vast majority of complaints result in a finding of “non-sustained,” so it matters that departments release information about how those investigations are handled.
The problem is that currently in Maryland when you file a complaint of police misconduct, you cannot find out how the department investigates your complaint. All you can find out is the outcome and any discipline. You cannot find out whether the department conducted a thorough or lackluster investigation of your complaint. This is because the complaint file is considered a “personnel record” under Maryland’s Public Information Act and personnel records may never be disclosed.
That needs to change. I support a legislative effort to remove the complaint file from the personnel record category. That is important because it would allow the police department to disclose the complaint file in appropriate situations. And when that change is made to improve transparency, it should include all outcome categories, because the public should have the right to know whether all complaints of misconduct are adequately investigated. That means information is released about whether witnesses are contacted, body camera footage is reviewed, and generally how the department handles the complaint.
It is a matter of good management. In my experience, most departments have only about 10% of officers who commit most of the infractions. Being transparent about all complaints would help departments to establish a pattern for problematic officers, who often have a string of non-sustained complaints. It would cause officers to think twice about engaging in misconduct. And it would make it less likely for officers to cover stuff up.
The recent case of Michael Owen Jr., the Prince George’s County police corporal who has been charged with second-degree murder for allegedly shooting William Green seven times while he was handcuffed in Owen’s patrol car, is the latest example we must pay attention to. Owen had a history of firing his weapon, and a personnel file that apparently includes a string of complaints that were not sustained. This whole terrible situation could have been avoided if the department were more motivated by public transparency to recognize patterns of unacceptable behavior.
These accountability issues can be systemic. Take the example of the Baltimore Police Department, which was exposed in a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice for failing to investigate and sustain complaints. The statistics were alarming: Of the 1,382 allegations of excessive force that BPD tracked from 2010 through 2015, only 31 allegations — or 2.2 percent — were sustained. Also during that five-year period, the department completed investigations into 1,359 allegations of discourtesy, but sustained just 2.6 percent of those allegations, arising out of only 15 incidents.
As a result of those findings and others in the report, the Baltimore Police Department has been operating since 2017 under a federal consent decree instituted by the Justice Department that mandates reforms and oversight.
Most importantly, if police departments do not have to be transparent about the investigation of complaints that are found non-sustained, then there is less incentive to ever sustain a complaint. I encourage departments to consider that it also helps them to make public the information about all complaints because then there will be more trust when they show the facts when officers are truly not guilty, too.
We can protect and serve better when bad behavior isn’t allowed to make us all look bad.
Within the law enforcement community, transparency holds us accountable to one another. It is often difficult to police ourselves when no one is watching. By publicly releasing information about the investigations they do into complaints, police departments can ensure we are accountable to the people we serve while repairing damage done in the past.