The nationwide focus on police shootings is forcing state and local authorities to confront another public concern that lingered for years in the margins of news pages: police secrecy. While the files of the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies have been subject to public disclosure for more than 40 years, a number of states allow police to keep criminal investigation files confidential years after defendants go to prison, after leads dry up or a case otherwise is no longer active, reports the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Journalists in Tennessee have long grumbled about a state law that allows the records of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to remain sealed even after cases are closed. At least one other state — Oklahoma — directs its state bureau of investigation to keep its files sealed, while several others including Virginia, Iowa, North Carolina, New Jersey and Kansas allow local police agencies to seal closed case files.
The fatal police shooting of black Memphis teenager Darrius Stewart prompted a judge’s order last month to release records, renewing discussion on possibly opening some TBI files through a proposed amendment to state law. Questions about police conduct are forcing authorities in several states to wrestle with public demands for greater access. “The attention that is being given to the officer-involved shootings or the use of Tasers by law enforcement or the beatings, these are bringing to the surface the questions about whether some of the public access laws are written as well as they could be,” said Randy Evans, an open government advocate in Iowa, where the fatal shooting of a 34-year-old woman last January led the state’s Public Information Board to pursue legal action that attempts to force police in Burlington, Iowa, to release a video withheld under the state’s police investigation exemption. “Without those cases … I don’t think there would be much likelihood of getting legislatures to revise the statutes to bring more openness to the laws,” said Evans, of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit that advocates for open government.