By Peta Richkus.
In early August, attorney Deborah Katz Levi, Director of Special Litigation, Baltimore City Felony Trial Division, Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD), joined approximately 100 Marylanders who spoke before the Police Reform and Accountability in Maryland Workgroup chaired by Delegate Vanessa E. Atterbeary, House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair.
In 2016, the (old Baltimore) City Paper gave its “best lawyer” award to public defender Deborah Levi. That year she led a group of approximately 20 defense attorneys seeking to get the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) file of notorious cop, Fabian Laronde-—who was subsequently fired. “While lawyers are always working in the best interest of their particular clients, some cases affect the public in general. And Levi’s victories this year have put the public good at the forefront of the public defenders’ office.”
In 2017, the public defender’s office identified more than 2,000 people with a pending case or conviction that involved the indicted Baltimore City police officers from the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. In 2018, Ms. Levi received the Dorsey Award, named for the late Charles H. Dorsey, Jr., long-time Executive Director of Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau and a champion of the poor and underprivileged, at the annual American Bar Association meeting.
In addition to the 100 people who signed up to testify via Zoom before the 14-member MD House workgroup, 18 people uploaded video testimony and a number of others submitted written testimony.
A transcript of Ms. Levi’s testimony follows, with her permission and that of OPD:
Thank you very much for having me. It is an honor to be here today and to be in the company of so many eloquent Marylanders whom I am proud to live amongst.
I practice in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in the Special Litigation Unit. I started in Baltimore in 2013 when there was not yet a practice of open disclosure of IAD (Internal Affairs Divisions) investigations. Around the time of the Freddie Gray prosecution, we got into our first notorious officer’s files. Those files spanned at least a decade (and) included allegations of theft, misconduct, disrespect, and abusive practices. Prior to our litigation in 2016, those (IAD) files had never been disclosed, and over 2,000 people in the City of Baltimore were prosecuted where that officer’s honesty and integrity were at issue in every single case. And none of that was disclosed.
We went to the next notorious officer, and we again won access to Internal Affairs (IAD) files. It shocked the conscience that they spanned over another decade of time and included grave misconduct and abusive practices. This officer would commit abuse and then call the crime lab to take photographs of bloody citizens of Baltimore, after unlawfully entering their homes. He covered up the abuses of his coworkers. None of this had ever been disclosed in thousands of prosecutions. We had to work so hard in those two cases to get the shielded IAD files. Today we have some access (to IAD files) in Baltimore City, but it is clearly not enough. The State’s Attorney’s office and the Police Department still withhold these files from us during open investigations, which a police department overcoming corruption takes far too long to investigate. Certainly, open investigations are most relevant to the people currently being prosecuted and whose liberty is at stake.
The history of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBR) is that it was enacted because police officers are alleged to perform a different type of work. If you look at the case law interpreting LEOBR, it says police officers are different and that’s right, they are different. But the reason that they are different is precisely why the law has to be repealed. In everything that they do, and every day, their honesty and integrity is part of a criminal prosecution. Whether they are swearing out a police report, taking the witness stand, or providing an affidavit in their search and seizure warrants, their honesty and their integrity is always at issue. And yet in every case, like my colleague Mr. Keith Lotridge (Prince George’s County District Public Defender) said, their disciplinary files go completely and entirely undisclosed. They are witnesses whose honesty is part of the prosecution.
It is time to repeal LEOBR. And for those who asked us at the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing, “Well, what would that do if we repeal LEOBR? Because it doesn’t really speak to IAD files.” That’s true. And so we have to enact an affirmative statement. We should undo LEOBR because law enforcement officers do not deserve these protections. They do not deserve more protections than any other profession in the state of Maryland. We should also amend MPIA (MD Public Information Act) restrictions to not extend to IAD files. And we should have an affirmative statement, like we do with forensic labs: documents about forensic lab mistakes are public documents and so should IAD files be public documents.
Officers should not be allowed to act with such impunity. The secrecy that surrounds them is deeply pervasive in our criminal justice system. Just yesterday, I litigated a case in an outlying County with an officer who committed grave abuse against a young man. The judge presiding over the matter said, “Ms. Levi, do you mean to tell me, in every single case where there is a police officer involved, the prosecutor has a duty to look at their IAD files?” The shocking answer is, it’s not just me who thinks so. It is the Supreme Court of the United States, in Kyles v. Whitley, who said, “Yes, they have a duty to seek out impeachment evidence and turn it over.” But until we repeal the law and remove these outdated protections, we will not change the culture, the lack of transparency and disclosure, in America, and certainly not in Maryland.
Internal affairs divisions are at the center of any examination of how police departments deal with human rights abuses committed by officers.… Since oversight commissions and journalistic investigations have found that a small percentage of officers are responsible for large percentages of abuses, (the) failure to identify and punish repeat offenders is evidently at the hub of the problem.
“The workings of internal affairs divisions are cloaked in excessive secrecy: information about their operations is only disclosed in incomplete and occasional fashion through investigative newspaper articles, books, and special commission studies on police departments, usually following major scandals. Otherwise, the public is prevented from participating in, or even knowing about, the way police officers patrolling their streets are dealt with when they commit abuses. While police representatives claim privacy issues are the reason for protecting information about investigations or disciplinary hearings, police departments also resist providing information even when relevant names and other identifying information are excised. Observers are left wondering why no information is disclosed to support the contention that the police are policing themselves.”
Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States, Human Rights Watch, 1998.
A small sample of what Mr. Laronde cost Baltimore City, over and above his overtime pay (Laronde received $100,000 in overtime pay in 2015 alone; he had been with the department since 2001):
After a 2008 incident in which a man claimed Laronde and two other officers illegally detained and strip-searched him in front of his wife and children, the city settled a lawsuit for $155,000.
In 2012, a jury found Laronde and another officer civilly liable and awarded a court clerk $40,000 in damages after the clerk claimed Laronde and the officer accosted him at the courthouse.
In another case in 2013, the city paid $1,500 to a man who accused Laronde of stealing $770 from him during an arrest in 2011.
In December 2016, Laronde was banned from the city courthouse after a November incident in which he was accused of filming a witness and WBAL reporter Jayne Miller in the hallway the day of a hearing about his internal affairs (IAD) file. Photography is prohibited inside the courthouse. (And witness intimidation is against the law.)
About the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing
A state commission with the power to subpoena witnesses and documents to unravel the culture of corruption that allowed a task force of sworn police officers (the Gun Trace Task Force) to run a criminal enterprise from within the Baltimore Police Department. (The Commission to Restore Trust in Policing is set to complete its work at the end of 2020 after focusing for two years on reforms to the Baltimore City Police Department.)
Peta Richkus is a retired State employee. MD Secretary of General Services, Jan 1999 – Jan 2003; Commissioner, Port of Baltimore, MD Port Administration, Jul 2008 – Jan 2014.