After a series of police killings in Maryland, and the police killing of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, concern about police practices has dramatically increased. The ACLU of Maryland is continuing its long tradition of addressing police misconduct, racial profiling, and militarization, as well as empowering people to know their rights when interacting with police.
While many officers carry out their jobs with respect for the communities they serve, the ACLU believes we must confront the profound disconnect and disrespect that many communities of color experience with their local law enforcement. We are working to address these problems in several ways, including Know Your Rights trainings, attending community events such as protests and meetings, advocating for responsible police body camera policies, fighting for accountability for police abuses, pressing for the right of the public to information about complaints of police misconduct, and documenting the scope of police killings in Maryland.
Requests to speak to community groups about their rights have poured in. The ACLU of Maryland has spoken at forums across the state - from the Eastern Shore, to Prince George's County, to Baltimore City, and more. Thankfully, the ACLU of Maryland had already begun greatly expanding our Know Your Rights trainings with more staff and volunteer trainers. We are also creating a new design for our popular "Know Your Rights" wallet card - better known as the "bustcard."
The ACLU of Maryland has been present at many local protests, meetings and discussions to engage with activists and hear the concerns of community members. In August, we attended the very first "Baltimore for Ferguson" protest at City Hall, where we handed out "Know Your Rights" cards. After the grand jury's decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo, we attended Baltimore's emergency response protest to monitor police interactions and ensure the rights of protestors.
Meanwhile, the ACLU of Maryland will be advocating for police body camera legislation that respects the privacy rights of the public during the 2015 General Assembly session. In addition, we will press for reform of the Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights, which is one of the most extreme such bills in the country. As more and more information comes out about patterns of police brutality and the need for communities to be able to hold police accountable, it is clear that LEOBR shields officers from the consequences of their misconduct and it is overdue for reform..
In October, the ACLU won a key victory in the fight for information about what happens to complaints of police misconduct. In a long-awaited ruling, the Court of Special Appeals upheld our legal challenge on behalf of a Somerset County woman who was denied information about how the Maryland State Police treated the citizen complaint she filed against a state trooper who left her an outrageous voicemail message in which he twice referenced her using a racial slur.
The state police had refused to release a single document, including Teleta Dashiell's own statement, insisting that all the documents are personnel records that are strictly confidential. But the appeals court ruled that the state police could not make blanket claims that every document pertaining to Dashiell's complaint of police misconduct must be kept secret.
This important ruling means that police departments can no longer categorically refuse to let the public see records about whether and how police are policing themselves.
Incredibly, the State Police have appealed this decision to the state's highest court, arguing that all records of misconduct should be kept from the public.
In a separate case, the ACLU and other civil rights groups filed a "friend-of-the-court" brief asking the Court of Appeals to step in to ensure that victims of police abuses can hold law enforcement accountable when the government does not. In this case, a whie Prince George's County police officer with a record of past misconduct maliciously killed an unarmed Latino man, Manuel Espina, who had been waiting outside his apartment complex for his wife and son to prepare his birthday celebrations.
The officer, who had a documented history of excessive force including two incidents in the previous three months, initiated a confrontation and then brutally assaulted Espina before shooting him in front of his son. When Espina's son attempted to give his father CPR, he was himself arrested and imprisoned. A recording of the 911 call reveals Jackson cursing at the family after he shot Espina. The officer was never criminally charged and remains with the police department.
Confronted with this injustice, the family went to court. A Prince George's County jury found the officer acted with malice in killing Mr. Espina, awarding his wife and son $10 million in damages to account for their devastating loss. However, the reviewing courts slashed the jury's award to just $200,000, reasoning that awards against the government are subject to strict damages caps, even for the most egregious civil rights violations. The ACLU, together with other civil rights groups, argued that such an outcome severely undermines the civil rights guarantees of the Maryland Constitution and sends the message that police abuse does not have to be taken seriously, even where the abuse is so egregious that it ends in death.
Finally, the ACLU of Maryland is producing a report documenting police killings across the state over the past five years, which is due to be published in 2015.
The ACLU's efforts are part of a broader goal of bringing an end to the prevailing policing paradigm in which police departments are more like occupying forces, imposing their will to control communities. This ‘us' versus ‘them' policing antagonizes communities by casting a blanket of suspicion over entire neighborhoods, often under the guise of preventing crime.
Instead, we advocate for collaboration, transparency, and communication between police and communities around the shared goals of equality, fairness, and public safety.