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The Nose

What We've Got Here Is Failure to Communicate

Posted 5/10/2000

After years of dealing with a Baltimore City Police Department hierarchy that apparently considered "public information" an oxymoron, the Nose couldn't wait for the "transparent" BCPD promised by Mayor Martin O'Malley and Commissioner Edward Norris, the "open agency" (as Norris described to City Paper in an interview last month) that wouldn't hide its doings from the public eye. After our first close encounter with the new regime, we're still waiting.The Nose was down at the Central District covering the opening day of Sgt. Robert Richards' trial board on sexual-harassment charges (see Mobtown Beat). Spotting Sean Malone, O'Malley's handpicked police-department legal adviser, we sidled up and asked for a copy of the charges against Richards -- a thoroughly standard request, akin to getting a copy of the charges against a defendant in a criminal case. Malone told us we'd have to file a written request under Maryland's Public Information Act.

With the utter professionalism that is the Nose's trademark, we replied, "You've got to be kidding." Even during the shades-drawn Thomas Frazier era, we'd routinely gotten copies of trial-board charges. Malone assured us he was in earnest. How long would we have to wait to get the documents? "Ten days," the attorney said.

On the trial board's second day, we approached Malone again, asked the same question, got the same answer: "You have to file a request." We slapped one into his hand. The missive asked for both the written charges and any documents BCPD was submitting into evidence. The previous day's events having put us into a bit of a snit, the letter also noted that Malone's refusal to hand over clearly public records was hardly in keeping with the promised "transparent" department.

This display of journalistic bravado resulted in quick action. After the board's noon recess, Malone handed us a letter from Frank Derr, deputy city solicitor, who asserted that we would not be getting the charging documents in 10 days after all. We would not be getting them period. Derr contended that releasing the records "would be contrary to the public interest." (Never mind that the case had garnered much public attention due to Richards' claim that he was charged with sexual harassment in retaliation to his lawsuit charging the police department with discrimination.) Derr asserted that documents we sought were "personnel" and "investigatory" records exempt from the state's public-information law, and that should Richards be acquitted (as he subsequently was) he might seek to have them expunged -- by which logic, virtually any police report or criminal-court record could be withheld from the public.

The Nose eventually got the charging documents from another source, but we still wanted to know how O'Malley and Norris thought this bureaucratic blockade jibed with the notion of an open agency (especially considering that as a City Council member O'Malley made his reputation battling to wring records on crime stats and internal police disciplinary cases out of Frazier's police department). "[The Richards case] is an internal disciplinary matter," the mayor told us, and thus off-limits. (He did ask if we'd been able to get such records in the past, to which we replied, "Absolutely.") Norris, through a spokesperson, deferred to the city solicitor's office. It was almost enough to make the Nose nostalgic for the old days.

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