Access Denied: Colorado Law Enforcement Refuses Public Access to Records of Police Misconduct
14 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2018
Date Written: March 7, 2018
Despite the Colorado state law permitting discretionary release of law enforcement investigation files of alleged police misconduct under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act (CCJRA), most jurisdictions routinely deny public records requests for such files. Although the Colorado Supreme Court has mandated that law enforcement records custodians perform a balancing test on a case-by-case basis to decide whether to release these files, custodians generally deny all requests for files irrespective of the nature of alleged misconduct or the outcome of the investigation.
This report details the independent research study conducted as a student-faculty collaboration at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law to assess the willingness of law enforcement agencies to release internal affairs files. The study includes two “waves” of requests. The first wave of the study sought logs of internal affairs files during the 2015 and 2016 calendar years from various law enforcement agencies across Colorado. The second wave sought specific internal affairs files from those agencies that provided a sufficient list or log during the first wave of requests, as well as requests for a few additional targeted files of particular public interest. The researchers were ultimately unable to obtain a single complete internal affairs file from any jurisdiction included in the study. The vast majority of agencies denied outright the request or failed to respond. Furthermore, the two isolated jurisdictions that offered to process the request assessed cost-prohibitive fees for processing.
Despite state open records laws explicitly intended to promote public transparency and accountability among government actors, this study illustrates that Coloradans remain largely in the dark with regard to allegations and investigations of police misconduct. Indeed, most law enforcement agencies are categorically unwilling to allow public access to internal affairs files. To achieve the intent behind state open records law, the Colorado General Assembly should amend the CCJRA to require public release upon request of completed internal affairs investigations, a policy in line with at least a dozen other states.
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