Md police union sues to block publication of AI records made public by lawmakers

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When the law was passed, Alexa Renehan set out to find out what happened to the police officer she complained about so many years ago.

It was, after all, the purpose of transparency legislation named after Anton Black, who died in 2018 after an encounter with police in Greensboro, Maryland. It took no more than a month to obtain the officer’s disciplinary records. After negotiating a five-figure price in April, Renehan settled in to wait.

She was still waiting until the summer, long past Montgomery County’s legal deadline to release the records. A day before the county pledged to hand them over, the officer and the local police union sued the county to end the disclosure, arguing that officers’ privacy concerns outweighed the public’s right to know.

Litigation is an early test of Anton’s Law, which Maryland lawmakers past last year to ensure the public has access to police internal affairs records amid national clamor for increased accountability in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Proponents of the measure say disclosure ultimately builds trust between officers and those they oversee, but unions such as the Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP, have long argued that disclosure would damage officers’ reputations, harm their job opportunities and invite unfair defamation or harassment.

“This is supposed to bring transparency,” Renehan said, so that complaints about agents don’t “remain hidden behind the FOP curtain.

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Regardless of the outcome of the litigation, he blocked the release of records the county had prepared for release, in part through an unusual arrangement that allows the union to review internal case records before release. And he left Renéhan wondering whether she should intervene in the case at her own expense or leave it to county and union officials to determine what information the public should be able to access.

“You now have a process where the adversaries are not exactly adversarial,” said Kevin Goldberg, a veteran freedom of information lawyer and First Amendment expert for the Freedom Forum, referring to the county, the officer and to the union, who are so far the only parties to the case.

“It’s disturbing,” Goldberg said.

Acting Montgomery County District Attorney John P. Markovs declined to comment on the case, but said in an email that “any litigation is adversarial.”

Under Anton’s Law, disclosing police disciplinary records as “personal” records is no longer prohibited. But Maryland’s Public Information Act, or MPIA, contains other exceptions under which at least portions of these records could be withheld.

Confidentiality issues are common in disputes over public records. The question is not just whether the information might be private, legal experts say, but whether any harm resulting from its disclosure would outweigh the public interest in disclosure.

Renehan, who practiced family law in Montgomery County for more than a decade and now volunteers for African animal conservation and women’s empowerment groups, first requested the disciplinary records of Montgomery County Police Officer John J. Gloss in January. More than a decade earlier, she filed a complaint with the department about Gloss after a traffic stop she felt she handled improperly.

“I received a letter, which I did not keep, but which said that your complaint had been found valid – he will, or is, sanctioned,” Renehan recalls. But before Anton’s Law, there was no way for a member of the public to be informed of the investigation of a complaint or the disciplinary action, if any, that may have been taken.

Now Renehan wanted to know exactly what happened to his complaint, as well as all the others against Gloss. A few weeks after her application, she received from the police a the estimated $63,030 fee, which she learned through subsequent correspondence, was based on the size of Gloss’s disciplinary case, which covered five cases, 2,711 pages and dozens of hours of audio and video, according to correspondence reviewed by The Washington Post. It is not uncommon for individual internal affairs cases, which sometimes include allegations against multiple officers, to span hundreds of pages.

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 publishing records.

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In April, after some back and forth with the department, Renehan agreed to narrow the scope of his request. She paid $270 to receive only the investigation reports and the decisions of the five cases, or 174 pages of files. Then she waited.

The MPIA requires officials to release public records “promptly,” without unnecessary delay and within 30 days, unless the requester agrees to an extension.

“I haven’t paid you for over 8 weeks and it’s outrageous!” Renehan wrote to the department in early June.

A department clerk responded that the records were undergoing a “final legal and official review prior to release.” Two weeks later, the clerk informed Renehan that the department needed an additional 10 business days while the Fraternal Order of Police reviewed the case, according to records reviewed by The Post.

The Post reported last month that the union representing Montgomery County officers, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, reached an agreement earlier this year with County Executive Marc Elrich (D) giving him time to inspect internal affairs records and to object to their publication before a member of the public can see them.

In separate interviews for this article, union president Lee Holland and Montgomery County Deputy Police Chief Darren Francke told the Post that the agreement gives union members a chance to correct mistakes the department might make in preparing files for publication. They said the union reviewed about 10 sets of records and raised a single question – whether an alleged violation by an officer amounted to a technical infraction. Neither Holland nor Francke mentioned the lawsuit.

On Thursday, Francke said the lawsuit involved a separate issue from the one he disclosed earlier. “It fell off my radar. I completely forgot. I was asked to call you at the last minute, so I apologize for that. I wasn’t trying to trick you or anything,” did he declare.

Holland did not respond to an email and phone message seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The union filed its lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court on July 5, a day before Renehan received the records. County notified Renehan and later sent him a copy of the union’s complaint, which does not name Gloss but instead refers to him as “Officer John Doe.”

The lawsuit seeks to block the release of documents documenting internal business investigations into allegations against Gloss dating back “almost two decades”. They include sustained allegations of ‘compliance with the law’ and ‘conduct unbecoming’, along with other allegations that have not been substantiated, according to a summary the department shared with Renehan, who contacted The Post after read a recent article. The summary, which has been reviewed by The Post and is called a “Concise Employee History,” includes five cases, some of which include multiple alleged violations of the policy.

The recordings also include sustained “courtesy” allegation dated December 3, 2010, the summary states. Renehan said she believed that was the date of her complaint. Court records show Gloss issued him a speeding citation on November 27, 2010.

Goldberg of the Freedom Forum said the lawsuit appears to be more than an attempt to ensure proper administration of the new law. “I think they’re actually trying to undermine it at the first corner,” he said.

Court filings in the case refer to Gloss anonymously pursuant to an order signed by Montgomery County Circuit Court Associate Judge Bibi M. Berry, which was offered in a union petition that , he said, was necessary to protect his privacy and which the county agreed to. The union’s complaint describes ‘Officer John Doe’ as a ‘decorated sworn police officer’ and a ‘Medal of Bravery recipient’. Gloss did not return an email or phone message requesting comment.

The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce awarded Gloss a “Silver Medal of Valor” for taking on a group of armory burglars in 2019. As the getaway SUV sped towards and past him, Gloss fired five shots, one of which entered the rear of the SUV over its brake light and struck a 17-year-old in the rear cargo area, killing him, investigators said. The Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office, which investigated on behalf of Montgomery County, concluded the shooting was justified.

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The union’s lawsuit gives various reasons why Gloss’s disciplinary records, or at least parts of them, should be withheld from the public, including claiming that their disclosure would be “an unwarranted invasion of privacy” and would disclose ” protected personal files”.

The complaint said it would be “contrary to the public interest” to release recordings of allegations that were not substantiated. The same argument was made to lawmakers as they debated Anton’s Law, but his supporters disagreed. The legislature refused to pass a more restrictive version of the law that would have excluded unfounded complaints from disclosure.

“That was a big, big, big, big point for me, and that was what Anton’s Law was looking for — supported and unsupported complaints,” Del said. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the Maryland House version. the invoice’s. The public cannot assess whether police are monitoring themselves appropriately if they cannot see complaints that have not been upheld, he said.

Under a timeline approved Aug. 16 by Berry, the union had 30 days to submit a sealed memorandum furthering its arguments to withhold the records, and the county will then have 30 days to file a sealed response.

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