Our review of Montgomery County and Prince George’s County police department web sites has found widespread noncompliance with state transparency requirements, and ongoing, outright misstatements of key reforms of the police brutality complaint process — particularly of the new 366 day deadline for filing such a complaint.
While other elements of last year’s state police reform bill got more attention, it had very important transparency provisions as well. The state legislature required that Maryland police departments should publicly post to the Internet:
- all bargaining agreements (Maryland Public Safety law 3-515)
- all department policies (PS 3-515)
- a public complaint process (PS 3-515), and
- [eventually] a detailed description of the department’s community policing program (PS 3-517)*
Elements of a correctly described and administered complaint process should include :
- 366 days from the date of a brutality incident to file a complaint (not 90) (PS 3-104)
- sworn statement (not notarized) (PS 3-104)
- persons with standing to file a complaint include family members, parents of minors who suffered the brutality, and persons present at the incident or in possession of unaltered (to the best of their knowledge) video of the incident. (PS 3-104)
- [eventually] assurance that the complainant would be informed of the final disposition of the complainant’s complaint and any discipline imposed as a result (PS 3-207) *
We’ve undertaken a survey of all local police departments in Montgomery County and most in P.G. County, and are concerned to report that many of them appear to be failing to comply with these requirements or accurately describe complaint process law. A table below summarizes the findings — with links to supporting web pages when a department has posted at least partly compliant materials.
[Y=Yes, the item is posted or answered correctly. Y=…and linked from the table. n=No. -Blank-= Not applicable or not answered. “Score” is discussed below.]
Why is this important?
Well, for one thing, we think police departments ought to be setting a good example in obeying state law. More to the point, these are not frivolous transparency requirements — or especially onerous ones — so it’s concerning when police departments drag their feet to comply. One by one:
- Complaint processes that are generously deadlined, easy to find and understand, yet hard to abuse (sworn statement) seem self-evidently important and self-evidently important to get right.* For police departments like Rockville PD or Prince George’s County PD to still be listing 90 day deadlines (1, 2) — when the true deadline of 366 days went into effect over 100 days ago (10/1/16) — is an illegal deterrent to complaints, and one that many other police departments avoided. Each of those 100+ (112 to be exact) days was potentially one when someone gave up on a complaint process who didn’t need to.
- Police department policies (often called “general orders”) itemize each department’s more or less unique set of internal protocols about issues ranging from uniforms and employee wellness to use of force and profiling. Some cases (Fairmount Heights, Colmar Manor PD) clearly involve very small police departments with limited resources. But other police departments with more advanced websites (e.g., Hyattsville PD, Upper Marlboro PD) have posted promises to supply their general orders in the near future. That’s fine — but there was plenty of advance notice, the reform bill was signed in May, 2016.Some cases of “compliance” should also be put in quotes. PG County Police PD stands out: it does supply a large, multi-volume General Orders manual — but lists some orders as “REDACTED” even in their titles in the first volume, so the public has no idea what’s at stake — just that it won’t be reading anything about it. While this is permitted by the statute when publishing “would jeopardize operations or create a risk to public or officer safety,” it’s hard to believe everything about, e.g., PGCPD General Orders 42, 43, and 44 is so hush-hush we can’t see any of their contents, not even the title.
Bargaining agreements between police unions and their employing governments are not “just” about wages, overtime, pensions, time off and so on, as important as those are. They can also cover issues like how long “derogatory information” remains on the record, internal affairs procedures — issues that the public has a legitimate interest in. Without access to them, police reform advocates are ‘flying blind’ — and with them, some arguments by *management* may disappear as it becomes clear that a given bargaining agreement isn’t necessarily the root cause of resistance to change.
We hope the Chevy Chase Village, Rockville, and Gaithersburg police departments quickly correct their web sites and supply these texts.[Correction, 1/26/17: these police departments don’t have bargaining agreements with their cities, so there is nothing to list.]
- Community policing transparency can be a very worthwhile contract between a police department and its community. However, that awaits a standard definition of community policing — and that in turn awaits all but glacial progress of the newly formed “Police Training and Standards Commission.” Authorized as of October 1, there have been a grand total of two meetings. Part of the problem still has an Annapolis address.
Hall of Fame
Having called out a few police departments, it’s only right to praise the good ones. The Bowie Police Department got every current transparency requirement right. Well done! The Takoma Park Police Department also looks great – overlooking for a moment that we helped them correct their complaint policy errors about a week ago; they would have had a -2 score otherwise.
But what’s particularly great about both departments’ transparency compliance is that
(a) they cared — the TPPD fixed the problems we pointed out all but instantly — and
(b) they proved it can be done.
Caveats and comments
- Our “Score” is the number of correct descriptions in a police department’s complaint process description (whether on the form itself, or in explanatory material about it) minus the number of incorrect ones.
- Since item 4 (reporting the outcome of complaint) is not yet an active requirement, it’s treated as “extra credit”, +1 if right, -0 if wrong. We also include our own subjective “easy to find” Yes/No judgment about the posted complaint process. So the highest and lowest possible scores are 5 and -4.
- For example, the Montgomery County Police Department got the 366 day deadline, sworn statement, and final disposition parts right, but their complaint process and form were hard to find, resulting in a score of just 2.
- Getting the new 366 day deadline right (rather than 90 days) is particularly important, so we display it separately.
- “Community policing”: accepted definitions vary, and the newly formed “Police Training and Standards Commission” hasn’t set up the guidelines that arguably trigger that requirement. So this column is also treated as “extra credit” — green color code if an identified program description seems to fit, no color code otherwise.
- These data were compiled during the week of January 16, 2017. It’s possible a department has corrected an issue since then. It’s also possible we were wrong in the first place, though we’ve double-checked all negative findings. Please report updated police department web sites by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Plenty more Maryland police departments to get data about!
Finally — why stop at Montgomery County and P.G. County? Help add to our growing database of Maryland police departments at “Maryland county, city government and police department data entry,” where you can check which cities and counties are already done, then enter data for one that isn’t.
The form focuses on counties and incorporated cities, collecting general web site data about the domain name, city council, city code, and police department, and then gets specific about the bargaining agreements, police department policies and complaint process details you turn up. We’re interested in contrasting and comparing, e.g., use of force, body camera, license plate scanner, taser, and other policies, so getting help locating those general orders (when available) will be welcome. We’ll check submitted work and post vetted results here. Thanks!
* The requirement to inform complainants of final dispositions only becomes active after the PTSC promulgates a uniform complaint process; however, the other reforms/modifications of the complaint process (those listed in 3-104) are active immediately upon the law taking effect. Similarly, the community policing transparency requirement arguably only becomes active after PTSC promulgates guidelines about this kind of program, though a close reading of the text might support an immediate requirement after the law went into effect on Oct 1, 2016.