Over the last year, and especially following the police-involved death of Baltimore's Freddie Gray, people in Maryland and the nation have been awakening to the cry for justice coming from communities whose trust in law enforcement has been shattered by police abuse, discrimination and misconduct, as well as the failure of our justice system to hold police accountable. Next week, Maryland's high court will hear a crucial case in the battle for police transparency and accountability: the case of Teleta Dashiell, who has spent five years trying to find out what the Maryland State Police did when she provided them with proof that a state trooper used racial slurs in talking about her -a person he was hoping to interview as a witness.
It happened like this:
On November 2, 2009, Maryland State Police Sergeant John Maiello telephoned Ms. Dashiell, seeking to interview her as a witness. He got her cell phone voicemail, and left a message identifying himself, and asking for a return call. Then, mistakenly thinking he had hung up the phone, Maiello continued, seemingly in conversation with another trooper, leaving a long, rambling message in which he ranted about Ms. Dashiell using a racial slur.
"When I first heard the message, I was angry and very upset," Teleta said. "But I wasn't that surprised, because here on the Eastern Shore, I often see law enforcement do things that are totally out of line."
Ms. Dashiell is a private person who has never sought the limelight. And as a young African-American woman who lives a county with a long history of racial violence and oppression, the legacy of which persists today, it was no small thing for her to walk into the Princess Anne Barrack and swear out an official complaint against a white Maryland State Police sergeant. But she did it, despite her fears.
"I decided to file a complaint because most of the time when police do things wrong, they get away with it," said Ms. Dashiell. "It's their word against ours. But because this time, I had it on tape, I felt I should report it. Almost like it was my responsibility. I knew he couldn't say it wasn't true, and the police would have to do something about it."
Several months later, the MSP sent Ms. Dashiell a letter assuring her that the department had sustained her complaint and taken "appropriate" action, though they wouldn't tell her what that was.
That response did little to restore Teleta's faith in the State Police. Understandably, she wanted to know more than mere platitudes about how the department had handled her case. She wanted to see whether investigators cared that a trooper used racial slurs freely in conversation with other troopers, describing members of the public. She wanted to know how the trooper was disciplined, what other troopers were involved, what they said about the incident, and whether any changes were made that would prevent this kind of outrageous discrimination in the future. In short, she wanted to see for herself whether MSP had taken her complaint seriously.
She had good reason to be skeptical. Her case fell against the backdrop of more than 25 years of litigation addressing civil rights violations by the MSP, including racial profiling of African-American motorists and spying on political activists, as well as revelations that, out of approximately 100 citizen complaints alleging racial profiling from 2003 to 2008, the MSP did not sustain a single one. Against this backdrop, "Trust us" was simply not an adequate response to Ms. Dashiell's legitimate questions.
So, with the help of the ACLU, Teleta made a very reasonable request for more information about the MSP's investigation of her complaint under the Maryland Public Information Act ("MPIA").
In a response that helps illustrate why there is so much distrust of police, MSP contended that all records pertaining to her complaint and its investigation-including even her own statement-were confidential "personnel records" under the MPIA and the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights ("LEOBR"). According to the MSP, the offending officer's purported privacy interests in keeping the details of his wrongdoing secret trumped Teleta's-and the public-‘s-right to know.
Ms. Dashiell and the ACLU filed suit under the Public Information Act in 2010, seeking all records related to the MSP's investigation of her complaint, as well as those about actions taken in response. The litigation started in Baltimore County Circuit Court, then moved to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and finally to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. Throughout it all, Ms. Dashiell has simply asked for information about how the MSP investigated and addressed her complaint. And throughout it all, the MSP has clung to its extreme and insupportable position that neither Ms. Dashiell, nor any other member of the public, has any right to see records showing how the police handle even confirmed officer misconduct.
For far too long, police in Maryland have been allowed special treatment and special rights that have shielded police misconduct from public view. It is time to stop treating police officers as having more rights than the people they are sworn to protect. And one place to start is by ensuring that people who have experienced police misconduct - like Teleta - can find out whether their complaints were taken seriously.
Teleta Dashiell may never have sought the limelight, but the stand she took and case she brought presents a question that is at the heart of the nation's growing recognition that transparency is essential to building and maintaining community trust in law enforcement: Will the public - and the victims of misconduct - ever get to see records that show how law enforcement agencies handle proven officer misconduct?
On Monday, Maryland's Court of Appeals will get the chance to answer that question.
To her supporters, Ms. Dashiell has a special message: "I would like to say thank you. I hope my stand will help other people to take a stand against police abuse."