Accessing Police Disciplinary Records (Good Luck, you will need it)


Early in my career, we investigated the Washington State Bar Association and among the results was easier public access to lawyer misconduct records.

When we exposed troubles at nuclear weapons plants, the U.S. Department of Energy provided to public libraries reports on dangerous radiation incidents once classified.

Law enforcement hasn't responded quite that way, despite the history-making work of reporters like Bill Marimow in Philadelphia, Bob Greene on Long Island and Gene Miller in Miami.

Police officer disciplinary documents are guarded more closely in most jurisdictions than safety and environmental accident reports at top-secret nuclear weapons plants, lawyer punishments and paper trails in Pentagon transactions. Aside from notable exceptions, opacity is an entrenched tradition.

Two of the nation's top academic experts on police misconduct – law professor Roger Goldman at Saint Louis University and criminal justice professor Samuel Walker at the University of Nebraska at Omaha – suggest simple steps for Congress and the Obama Administration to improve policing.

Goldman would require every law enforcement agency and state to report to a federal registry extensive details on serious disciplinary action taken against any commissioned officer, including terminations, resignations under suspicion and disqualifications, as well as any civil court judgments involving police work. Finally, require every department to make use of that registry when hiring officers and retooling disciplinary procedures-Walker agrees with that, and would also like the FBI to keep statistics by jurisdiction on police shootings, the way they keep statistics on crime, and make those public.

“For a data bank to be effective in the long run, it must be mandated by federal law,” said Goldman. “All law enforcement agencies must report any significant disciplinary actions they take, any court judgments or settlements against the agencies because of actions taken by an officer must be reported, and all law enforcement agencies must query the data bank.”

Credit the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training for a voluntary shoestring effort to keep track of police officer decertifications, but only half the states provide it with information. Good police officers are precious to all of us, but a miscreant with a badge is a public enemy, and a gathering of three or more is a gang.

The professors and others believe our best officers will be protected, along with our citizenry, if we track the rogues the way we do bad doctors, lawyers, real estate agents and other professionals. That information is frequently available to the general public.

“They have an affect on our safety. Our rights,” said Walker. “We have our rights to that information.”

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