How to hold law enforcement accountable through public records

Police misconduct records are closed in 31 states and the District of Columbia, leaving a cloud of secrecy around law enforcement coverage, according to reporting funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

“Access to information about how your government works, and your ability to synthesize that information and present it to the general public so they understand how their government works, is foundational to the success of our system of governance,” Maryland State Sen. Will Smith said during a National Press Club Journalism Institute panel on police accountability.

While this lack of transparency for police misconduct records is still a major roadblock for journalists, change is coming.

California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York recently opened access to these records. State Sen. Jill P. Carter, Del. Gabriel Acevero, and Smith were instrumental in the passage of Anton’s Law, the Maryland measure passed to make police disciplinary information public.

“We’re a little shy of a year of implementation,” Smith said. “We’ve got some things that are still forthcoming in terms of the rollout. But the way that this has played out, and the actual practical application of our efforts, I don’t think has been adhered to with fidelity.”

Today, 19 states have laws that allow the public to see police records. But challenges persist as journalists struggle to obtain the information they need to hold law enforcement accountable.

Joining state Sen. Smith to discuss how journalists can overcome barriers to access were:

  • WAMU reporter Martin Austermuhle, who recently co-authored a story on how a panel of high-ranking officers kept troubled officers on the force in Washington, D.C.
  • Deborah Katz Levi, director of special litigation at the City Felony Trial Division in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, who discovered that the Baltimore Police Department had wrongly expunged discipline records for more than 20 officers
  • Moderator Miranda Spivack, a veteran reporter who recently published a series of stories about the erasure of civilian criminal records and police discipline records, and the danger these erasures pose to holding law enforcement accountable

Understand how police can hide misconduct through keywords and data 

“Sometimes when we think we’re getting access and getting transparency, we’re really not because of the way these records are kept,” Katz Levi said.

Many police departments across the country use software called IAPro to house their records, and law enforcement officers themselves are the ones to categorize complaints.

Katz Levi cautions reporters to be prepared for a data dump of files with lots of numbers, media, and other documents. Usually, the first set of numbers will be the year that the complaint was filed.

“They can generally always boil it down to neglect if they want to and hide misconduct under that title,” she said. “They can also hide complaints under things called VCS, which means a violation of city or state law.”

She added that dispositions can run the gamut from unfounded, sustained, or dismissed by legal, which in states like Maryland, can lead to the illegal expungement of multiple internal affairs complaints.

Always look beyond the IAPro summary

The IAPro summary will be written by law enforcement officers, so journalists should dig deeper into the data to find the context around incidents.

“When you go deeper into the trenches of the documents around the reports, that’s where you’re going to find what was really happening,” Katz Levi said.

Leverage lawyers to access records

Lawyers will file motions in court to get access to police records because the officers are testifying in cases.

Katz Levi suggests attending and writing about these hearings: “You’re gonna help us to lift the veil of secrecy when you attend the hearings and write about them.”

“Defense lawyers know who the bad cops are because often they’re up against them,” Spivack said. “So that is a group of people that reporters ought to be trying to get in touch with.”

Team up with other journalists or newsrooms to parse through a data dump

Many journalists do not have the time or resources they need to sift through thousands of pages of documents. Partnering with other newsrooms or specialized outlets can help save time.

“The good thing is that there is a world out there of people who are willing to help,” Austermuhle said. “Sometimes you get lost in the weeds of the stuff that you cover, and it’s good to have someone from outside tell you, look, I see something here that you may have missed just because you’re so embedded in this on a daily basis.”

Ask local prosecutors for their “Do Not Call” list

A Brady (or Giglio) list is a compilation from a prosecutor’s office of law enforcement officers with a history of incidents.

“Prosecutors don’t want them to testify because their credibility will be impeached by the defense lawyers,” Spivack said. “I would encourage every reporter out there to ask the local prosecutor for their Brady list.”

When you can’t get the information, write about that

Sometimes journalists will not be able to get the information they need.

And that’s okay, said Austermuhle. Let the public know what journalists are up against.

“There’s also a good story to be told about how difficult it is to get that information,” he said. “If this is what we do for a living, and we’re having trouble getting it, it’s worth our while to tell people that at some point.”

Utilize these resources for access:

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