ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The names of arresting officers and other law enforcement authorities involved in cases have been removed from the state’s searchable public court database.
Officers names vanished sometime Thursday from cases the officers were involved with. There was no announcement from the Maryland Judiciary, which did not return messages seeking comment.
The Maryland Judiciary Case Search database contains information about court cases, including information about defendants, the charges they face, the names of prosecutors and defense attorneys, and law enforcement officers who were involved in the arrest. It’s an integral tool for members of the public, lawyers and journalists.
The change appears to stem from amendments approved by the judiciary’s standing committee on rules of practice and procedure in June. The committee’s annual report from last year eliminated a clause in rule 16-910, “Access to Judicial Records,” that said, “Unless shielded by a protective order, the name, office address, office telephone number and office e-mail address, if any, relating to law enforcement officers, other public officials or employees acting in their official capacity, and expert witnesses, may be remotely accessible.”
The judiciary rules say that officers’ names should still be contained in cases when accessing information from courthouse kiosks. In Baltimore Circuit Court on Friday, no such kiosk was available for the public to use Friday morning. The courthouse computers also use an antiquated program in which searches can’t be sorted or tailored the way searches on case search could be refined.
It was not clear what prompted the change. The rules committee has not posted minutes of its meetings since April 2016.
Police in Anne Arundel County say they began lobbying for a change in how officers’ names were displayed in case search about three years ago. But the department’s spokesman and union president say they never wanted names be hidden entirely.
“I don’t know why everything has been taken out. That’s not what we wanted. All we asked for was no first names,” said Lt. Ryan Frashure, the department spokesman.
The county’s Fraternal Order of Police chapter was surprised, too.
“This kind of got blown up,” said Cpl. O’Brien Atkinson, the union president. “At no time did anybody with the F.O.P. or the department lobby or try to have officers full names removed.”
Baltimore Police say they didn’t lobby for a change and “really don’t see why they got rid of what was already publicly available.”
“We use it too,” chief spokesman T.J. Smith said of the data.
The disappearance of officers’ names prompted concerns from media advocates, attorneys and public officials.
“If you’re monitoring arrest history, if you’re looking for patterns, the officer history is pretty critical,” said Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association. “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.”
The Maryland Public Defender’s Office said it was notified last week that there would be changes, “but we did not know the scope of those changes or that any publicly available information would be limited.”
“We are very concerned about the removal of officers’ names as witnesses from casesearch,” spokeswoman Melissa Rothstein said. “It will inhibit our ability to effectively represent our clients across the state, and particularly in Baltimore City it will impede the current efforts to improve transparency, which the federal GTTF conviction as well as the consent decree confirmed are urgently needed.”
In Anne Arundel, Frashure and Atkinson say the department began asking the state courts for changes around 2015. Previously, they say, an officers’ first initial and full last name appeared in arrests listed online. But something changed in the database – they suspect a glitch – to include an officer’s entire first name.
“We had officers coming to us saying, ‘Hey, why is our full name coming up in Case Search?’ We brought it to the attention of the clerk’s office,” Atkinson said.
The police union and department lobbied the courts to change back, they say. But months and years went by. Nothing happened.
“The issue was basically a dead issue,” Atkinson said.
Both men say the last name of an arresting officer should be listed online. They say the database should also show an officers’ rank, but only an initial of the first name.
“The intent is just to keep the first names — and the first names only — off of the public Case Search,” Frashure said. “We have no issues with transparency.”
The requests come from their concerns about the safety of officers, he said. They worried criminals might be able to use full names from Case Search as a clue to locate where an officer lives.
That hasn’t happened during the past two years when the full names were listed, but they say it’s a precautionary measure.
“Waiting until something happens would be terribly irresponsible,” Atkinson said. “What could happen could be pretty dire, and we have a responsibility to protect our protectors.”
Common Cause of Maryland called the move “incredibly disconcerting.” ”At any point in time, this would be cause for concern, but in the context of the just concluded (Gun Trace Task Force trial) this move is egregious and must be overturned,” the watchdog organization said.
Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott wrote on Twitter that the change was “just insane and needs to be changed back immediately.”
“Our police problems will not be cured by less transparency,” defense attorney C. Justin Brown wrote.
Two candidates for Baltimore State’s Attorney also weighed in. Defense attorney Ivan Bates wrote: “This rule change is just wrong, this change only hurts everyone involved in the Criminal justice system, police need to rebuild the relationship with the community and this change impedes that.”
“This is the opposite of the kind of transparency Baltimore needs right now to rebuild trust, especially when it comes to police officers,” said attorney Thiru Vignarajah. “The committee should reverse this rule change as soon as possible.”
Maryland’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists said the change was a “step backward for transparency and accountability in Maryland.”
“We strongly urge the Maryland Judiciary and the Court of Appeals Standing Committee on Rules and Practice and Procedure, for the good of the public, to reverse this change as soon as possible,” the media organization said in a statement.
Case Search has been particularly integral in the wake of revelations about the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force, helping track cases involving the corrupt officers and search for links with other officers and cases.
When searching a case by defendant, no officer names appear. Searches for the names of individual officers in Baltimore’s District and Circuit Courts continued to return results Thursday, but by Friday morning, searching by officers’ names no longer returned any results, meaning there is no way for the public to look up an officer’s cases.
The federal court database, known as PACER, does not allow users to search by officers and agents involved in cases. That system allows users to download all documents related to a case.
Information from: The Baltimore Sun, http://www.baltimoresun.com