By Shannon Sneed
For years in Baltimore, victims of brutality, sexual assault or discrimination by Baltimore police have been forced into silence. Citizens who settled with the police department in cases of police misconduct were required to adhere to a “gag order” prohibiting them from speaking their truth as a part of the settlement process. These gag orders were cruel and counterproductive. And now they are a thing of the past.
On Dec. 2, my “Transparency and Oversight in Claims and Litigation” ordinance became law in the City of Baltimore and will take effect on the first of the year, after the Mayor chose not to sign or veto the legislation, in accordance with the City’s Charter. It ends the city’s damaging practice of using non-disparagement clauses – gag orders – as a condition of settlement. It also requires the city to publicly disclose details about police misconduct litigation and settlements.
I sponsored this legislation because the gag order policy was contributing to the cycles of trauma and violence in our city.
I want to thank Tawanda Jones, members of the West Wednesday Coalition, Not Without Black Women, Bmore Runners4Justice, and the ACLU of Maryland for their tireless efforts in the entire process. The final product is a positive example of when concerned citizens and legislators work together on issues that affect our neighbors.
In the Overbey case which partially inspired it, the victim survived an encounter that began when she reported a burglary to Baltimore police, who she alleged then beat, tasered, verbally abused and arrested her in her home. The consequences for the victim continued for years as she and her family were forced temporarily into homelessness because her arrest record made it hard to find work.
Being able to speak freely about a harmful experience with police is essential to the healing process for both the victim and the community. The new ordinance will not only better serve victims, but it will also increase transparency around these abuses of public authority, discouraging them from occurring in the first place.
The gag order policy enabled what the United States Department of Justice found to be a systemic failure by the Baltimore Police Department to hold its officers accountable for police misconduct. It is symptomatic of city leadership that looked the other way while bad actors like the convicted members of the Gun Trace Task Force operated with near total impunity.
We are paying a heavy cost for these failures today. Baltimore City sits at a crisis point, and we simply can’t meet our challenges by concealing their true nature and embracing the status quo.
We won’t ensure a better future for our kids by denying that our public schools are underfunded. We won’t help families access living wage jobs by ignoring how our public transit system fails them. We won’t reduce crime by sweeping police misconduct under the rug. And we won’t restore trust in City Hall by targeting victims. Transparency is essential if we are going to solve our problems.
Restoring public trust in our city’s government is going to take a lot of work, and not just from the Baltimore Police Department and city leaders: it’s going to take a full-fledged effort from all of us in the community to work together with law enforcement to rebuild the relationship between the community and the police.
Our police do a very difficult job under increasingly dangerous circumstances. They are often on the front lines battling some of Baltimore’s most serious issues – domestic violence, drug addiction, and the senseless killings happening in our streets. We are grateful for their service and we look forward to partnering with them to curb crime in Baltimore City. But for those who violate the public’s trust, this legislation will aid their victims, and the city as a whole, in healing.
Shannon Sneed is a Baltimore City Councilwoman representing the 13th District. She is currently a candidate for Baltimore City Council President.
The opinions on this page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the AFRO.
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