Law Enforcement Perspectives on Public Access to Misconduct Records
42 Cardozo Law Review 1237 (2021)
U of St. Thomas (Minnesota) Legal Studies Research Paper No. 20-01
56 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2020 Last revised: 4 Nov 2021
Date Written: March 10, 2020
Laws restricting public access to law enforcement misconduct records are the subject of national debate. Opponents of these laws argue that public access to law enforcement misconduct records is critical to holding officers accountable, while proponents claim that permitting public access violates privacy rights and endangers law enforcement officers. Neither side has much data to support its arguments.
This article summarizes the results of a research project conducted in the summer and fall of 2019, which surveyed hundreds of law enforcement administrators (primarily police chiefs and sheriffs) on their experiences with and attitudes toward disclosure of misconduct records. Several dozen administrators also participated in follow-up phone interviews. The project is, to the best of the authors’ knowledge after an extensive interdisciplinary literature review, the first systematic effort to gather data on the topic of how laws regulating public access to law enforcement misconduct records affect law enforcement agencies, officers, and the communities in which those officers work.
The results of the study are enlightening. While law enforcement unions typically portray officers as universally opposed to release of misconduct records, the administrators in this study were deeply divided on the topic. More administrators found public access to misconduct records beneficial to their departments and communities than harmful to their officers. Most of the benefits came in the form of improved community relations and public trust. The harms administrators did identify were largely reputational; very few provided support for the notion that public access to misconduct records endangers officers. Administrators also provided many suggestions for changes to existing records laws.
Keywords: Police, Police Accountability, Police Misconduct, Privacy, Transparency
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation