The police officer who regularly patrols your neighborhood may have a horrible record — he may have been accused multiple times of using unnecessary force or arresting people simply because of their skin color. But in 23 states and Washington, DC, you wouldn't be able to access the officer's history — because these places keep police disciplinary records confidential.
In a fantastic investigation, Robert Lewis, Noah Veltman, and Xander Landen of New York public radio station WNYC talked to attorneys and experts in all 50 states and DC and reviewed laws and court cases to find out which states restrict police disciplinary records. They found that 23 states and DC make the records confidential. And 15 other states limit access to them by, for example, only letting the public see examples of severe discipline, such as suspension or termination. The remaining 12 states generally open police disciplinary records to the public.
The typical defense for sealing these records, WNYC reported, is to prevent potential harassment against police officers, particularly from defense attorneys in court. "That could possibly sway a jury to allow a criminal to be set free when they really shouldn’t be set free," Michael Palladino, president of the Detective's Endowment Association, the union that represents NYPD detectives, told the public radio station.
But this severely limits the public and media's abilities to hold police officers and their departments accountable. As examples of excessive use of force by police get more attention, especially in the context of racial biases, confidentiality rules can make it very hard to see the history of police officers involved in these incidents. So, for example, after Freddie Gray received a fatal injury while in police custody, the records of the six Baltimore police officers involved weren't readily available to the public, making it harder to verify if they had engaged in abusive behavior before.
So with many people already feeling like police are by and large allowed to get away with acts of brutality or abuse of power, letting police departments seal these types of records simply feels like yet another way that cops can evade full public scrutiny — even as taxpayers keep them employed and paid for a service that directly affects us all.