Law enforcement’s actions are constantly under public scrutiny. In this digital age, people’s expectations of transparency and accountability have changed. Demands for open and free access to information about law enforcement activities are very common now.
All of this leads us to ask: Are complaints against police officers public records? Unfortunately, it’s a complicated matter and the answer isn’t simple. It mostly depends on what state you live in. In this article, you’ll learn about the states where you can and can’t request to see a police officer’s history of misconduct and how public records laws protect such information from scrutiny.
States Where Complaints Against Police Officers Aren’t Public Record
First, let’s talk about the states where you can’t access complaints against police officers. Majority of the states in the US shield such records from the public. They’re considered “confidential” documents because law enforcement agencies believe their release isn’t in the best interest of the public.
Below is a list of the 23 states where a police officer’s disciplinary history can’t be accessed by the general public:
● New Jersey
● New York
● North Carolina
● Rhode Island
● South Dakota
States That Offer Limited Access to Officer Complaints
There are some states in the US where police records aren’t explicitly confidential and can be accessed in some situations. Note that the final decision rests at the discretion of the police department and they can refuse to give you access to their records. Some of these states only allow police departments to release information about an officer’s suspension or termination.
According to the ACLU, Michigan used to be among the states where police complaints aren’t public record, but after a lawsuit was filed in 2016 by the ACLU, the court agreed that police departments have a legal obligation to release personnel files if they’re requested by a citizen.
Here are the states where you have limited access to such records:
● New Mexico
● South Carolina
● West Virginia
In these states, you’re more likely to get access if the information isn’t associated with an ongoing investigation. Even then, most states will generally refuse to share any personnel files.
States Where Police Disciplinary Records Are Public
Here are the remaining 12 US states where you can get access to a police officer’s disciplinary record easily in most cases:
● North Dakota
Some police departments, like the Florida Capitol Police, have dedicated websites where you can find information about a police officer’s disciplinary actions and complaint records.
To request access to public records in states where they’re not available online, you have to write a letter to the department where the officer is employed. Note that you can also use an online background search service to find information about a police officer if you know their name.
These services may not help you find an officer’s disciplinary history, but you can find other valuable information that can give you important insights into their professional background and any other public records associated with them.
Why Are Police Complaints Not Public Records?
Now you might be wondering, why is it that most states in the US don’t permit citizens to get access to complaints against police officers?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was passed in 1966, is what allows the public to request access to documents that are held by federal government agencies. It’s been amended multiple times since it was enacted and many agencies today are exempted from public disclosure.
According to the Washington Post, many police departments refuse to release information about a complaint filed against an officer if it’s still an active case. They often cite public records laws that exempt them from releasing personnel documents. However, many states today have pending bills that intend to make police records available to the public.
Get Access to Police Officer Records
Whether or not you can get access to police officer records depends on where you live. If you live in one of the states where there are no laws stopping police departments from releasing their records, then it should be an easy process.
But if you’re in one of the 23 states where such information isn’t publicly available, then unfortunately, the law is against you and there’s nothing you can do to get access to it. Your best option then is to use an online background check service to learn more about a police officer.