Police Misconduct Records Denied, Public Remains in Dark: Study

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Photo by Marcin Wichary via flickr

Despite state public access laws, Colorado law enforcement agencies routinely refuse to release internal files related to police misconduct, according to a new report.

Independent researchers Bridget DuPey, Margaret B. Kwoka and Christopher McMichael from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law tried to collect internal affair files during 2015 and 2016 from law enforcement agencies across Colorado—but to little avail.

More than half of the 43 agencies they reached out to either did not respond or rejected their request.

Twenty-four of the agencies provided no responsive records. Only five of the law enforcement agencies queried supplied files that were deemed to be “substantially transparent.”

Under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act (CCJRA), discretionary release of investigation files against police officers is permitted.

The intent of Colorado’s open-record laws is to promote the public’s interest in holding government accountable by requiring transparency, the study said.

One court noted that “transparency enhances public confidence in the police department and is constituent with community policing concepts and represents the more modern and enlightened view of the relationship between police departments and the communities they serve.”

But the study found this is hardly the case, and custodians generally deny all requests for files, regardless of the situation or outcomes.

The authors followed up with a second wave of requests to agencies that responded the first time, asking for more specific internal affairs documents.

Forty percent of agencies did not respond at all. Seven percent offered a duplicate of their first response, and thirteen percent asked for a prohibitive access fee.

Moreover, even when the alleged misconduct had been widely publicized, public outrage over the incident was high, and law enforcement agreed to a substantial payout of the alleged victim, public access of the files were still denied.

For example, in July 2017, the City of Aurora paid Darsean Kelley $110,000 to settle claims against an Aurora police officer who tased him in the back. A video of the incident had been viewed thousands of times, and Mr. Kelley’s case had generated nationwide media coverage, the study showed. 

Still the authors’ open records request to the City of Aurora was denied.

However, law enforcement agencies have admitted that when compelled by the courts to release internal affairs files, no harm has been done to the integrity of any investigations.

To fulfill the promise of Colorado’s open record laws, the state legislature should pass laws requiring police agencies to disclose completed internal affairs files in response to requests, said researchers.

“Without such legislation, the public will remain in the dark even with it comes to police misconduct.”

The full study can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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