Greta Willis’ son would have turned 31 this year.
He was born Aug. 26, 1991, and was killed by a Baltimore police officer days before his 15th birthday.
On a sunny morning in June, Willis points to the street named after her child – Kevin L. Cooper Way – while posting a Father’s Day message from her church. She stands at the epicenter of two worlds – the street named after her son de ella a block away in one direction and the church, Pillar Worship Center, that fuels her faith and activism de ella a few feet away in another.
Her faith helped her fight the Baltimore Police Department when it determined that the death of her son – who was in his home as an officer shot him – was justified. She sued, lost and refused the $10,000 settlement.
And she continued to stand on faith when she gave written testimony to the Maryland General Assembly last year in favor of Anton’s Law – legislation requiring that police misconduct and disciplinary information no longer be classified as personnel records, allowing those files to be publicly released.
Willis is one of many who have pushed for changes in police culture, an issue at the heart of the battle over Anton’s Law and similar laws across the nation.
High fees make police records inaccessible
The law took effect in October. Since then, the Baltimore Police Department has replied to more than 100 requests for information but has completed only about 40% without charging for the documentation, according to information obtained in June from the city. It’s those charges that activists take issue with, and which can make accessing misconduct and disciplinary information just as prohibitive as it was before Anton’s Law passed.
Baltimore police may charge several thousand dollars for one request. In October, the Baltimore Action Legal Team was charged more than $600,000 for information related to complaints. BALT has filed several suits for records against the city’s police department.
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Anton’s Law was named after Anton Black, a 19-year-old Black man killed by a Greensboro, Maryland, officer who had a problematic policing history. The officer was hired after information related to his record of him was omitted during the certification process, according to reports.
Enforcing the law has been difficult. After the Maryland legislature passed it last year, lawmakers created a task force to look into fee structures that have hampered some requests. That legislation was enacted last month.
Baltimore police aren’t the only ones being sued because of fees. The ACLU of Maryland is suing the sheriff in Calvert County for documents related to searches. The sheriff’s office charged more than $12,000 for one request.
And Maryland is far from alone in its fight for access to police records. The battle over Anton’s Law exemplifies a long-standing national problem when it comes to shifting law enforcement culture – a blue wall that protects bad actors.
As activists who seek this information preach: Public access to data on police behavior is powerful. It can expose dangerous cops, force accountability and be used to show patterns of misconduct.
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But pushback against releasing information happens at police departments across the country.
Baltimore leaders say that digging for records takes hours, and that the police department doesn’t have the resources to take care of extensive requests without getting outside help. This help, they say, costs money.
Activists reference the Maryland Public Information Act when requesting that fees be waived for items”in the public interest.”
A mother fighting for police accountability
In her small Baltimore row house that sits on Kevin L. Cooper Way, Willis holds a photo that includes several Black mothers who also are fighting for the legacies of their children. In the photo, Willis stands with the mothers of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, among others.
Three states that have seen some of the most devastating police brutality cases – Bland in Texas, Garner in New York and Brown in Missouri – have also had fraught histories when it comes to public release of police records.
Texas and Missouri have had varying degrees of limited access, according to information from an Associated Press report on state laws published last year. And New York opened access just two years ago but faced a lawsuit from police unions for doing so, according to the report.
Willis wants the examination of police to go beyond releasing records. She wants officers involved in police brutality incidents to be given more stringent mental health assessments.
She also talks about her push to shorten the number of days officers have had before they are questioned about a police brutality incident. She gave written testimony to the Maryland General Assembly to end the Maryland Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.
The day Kevin Cooper was killed in 2006, I have been acting erratically. Willis said he was in crisis, and she called the police. Two officers arrived at her home, and things initially went well enough for one of the officers to leave. Willis blames the officer who stayed behind for the escalating situation.
More than a decade after her son’s death, she lives in the same home where he was killed. When she is overwhelmed with stress and emotion, she takes a walk to scream, cry and pray by a nearby river. She also walks to what she calls Kevin’s park of peace – a small field of trees with orange ribbons hanging from their branches. The names of deceased loved ones, written in black marker on the bright strips, flutter in the wind.
In her living room, surrounded by photos of her family – including one of her son Kevin wearing a football jersey – Willis describes herself as David fighting against the giant of police misconduct.
The biblical analogy captures what activists around the country also must feel as they fight one lawsuit, one testimony, one file request at a time to bring accountability to an overwhelming system.
Eileen Rivers is the projects editor for USA TODAY’s Opinion section. Follow her on Twitter: @msdc14
This column is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from stand togetherwhich does not provide editorial input.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism