If a police officer in your community has a history of misconduct, can you find out about it? It depends where you live.
WNYC spoke to attorneys and experts in all 50 states and reviewed relevant statutes and court cases to get a national picture of a local issue. We found that a police officer's disciplinary history is effectively confidential in almost half of US states.
In some of these states, the law explicitly exempts these records from public view. In others, records are secret in practice because police departments routinely withhold them under vague legal standards or in spite of court precedents.
More on this investigation: The Hard Truth About Cops Who Lie • When a Cop's Right to Privacy Undermines Our Right to a Fair Trial • New York Leads in Shielding Police Misconduct • Reporter Robert Lewis Discusses National Implications on The Takeaway
In these states, and the District of Columbia, a police officer's disciplinary history is mostly unavailable through public records requests.
In some cases, all public employee personnel files are exempt from disclosure. In others, police departments withhold records under a general privacy exemption.
Laws in New York, California, and Delaware specifically make law enforcement officers' personnel records confidential.
In these states, police disciplinary records are available to the public in some situations.
In some of these states, only records of severe discipline, like a suspension or termination, are public while the rest is confidential. In others, responses vary by department because of evolving court precedents or ambiguity in the law.
In these states, police disciplinary records are generally available to the public.
Many of these states still make records of unsubstantiated complaints or active investigations confidential.
Police disciplinary records are not explicitly confidential, but police departments routinely deny requests for such records under local ordinances or Alaska Statute § 40.25.120, which exempts any release of law enforcement records that would constitute an "unwarranted invasion of privacy." State employee disciplinary records are confidential under Alaska Statute § 39.25.080.
Under Arizona Statutes §§ 39-121 - 39-128 and § 38-1109, police disciplinary records are available to the public provided the internal investigation has closed and any appeals process has concluded. In 1998, the Arizona Court of Appeals found in Bolm v. Custodian of Records of the Tucson Police Department that while official records of discipline are public, other personnel evaluations or internal affairs investigation records may still potentially be withheld on privacy grounds.
Under Section 832.7 of the California Penal Code, all law enforcement personnel records are confidential. A motion to obtain a police officer's confidential personnel records as evidence in a civil or criminal proceeding is known as a Pitchess motion (after Pitchess v. Superior Court), the requirements for which are specified in Section 1043 of the California Evidence Code.
Police disciplinary records are not explicitly confidential, but departments routinely deny requests under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, which allows custodians to withhold certain criminal justice records at their discretion, or the Colorado Open Records Act, which exempts personnel records from disclosure.
Section 1-210 of Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act exempts police disciplinary records from any public disclosure that would constitute "an invasion of personal privacy." However, the precedent set by the Connecticut Supreme Court in Perkins v. Freedom of Information Commission in 1993 made it difficult to successfully withhold disciplinary records on privacy grounds, and requests for such records are generally granted on appeal to the state's Freedom of Information Commission.
Police disciplinary records are confidential under Delaware's Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights and the privacy exemption to the Delaware Freedom of Information Act.
Police disciplinary records are generally withheld under the privacy exemption in Section 2-534(a)(2) of the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act.
Records pertaining to an active disciplinary investigation are confidential under Georgia Code § 50-18-72(a)(8), but all other police disciplinary records are public.
Under Section 92F-14 of Hawaii's Uniform Information Practices Act, records pertaining to minor discipline of a police officer are generally confidential. However, records pertaining to an officer's dismissal are public. Whether records pertaining to an officer's suspension are also public is the subject of a pending court case, Peer News LLC v City and County of Honolulu Police Department, which was argued before the Hawaii Supreme Court in June 2015.
Police disciplinary records are exempt from disclosure under Section 74-106 of the Idaho Public Records Act.
Exemptions in Section 7 of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act have typically been used to withhold the release of police disciplinary records, but in 2014 the Illinois Appellate Court ruled in Kalven v. City of Chicago that at least some such records must be released. Additional litigation is ongoing.
Under Indiana Code § 5-14-3, police disciplinary records are only public if they pertain to an officer's demotion, suspension, or discharge.
Police disciplinary records are confidential under Iowa Code § 22-7-11. If an officer is discharged, the fact of that discharge is public.
Police disciplinary records are generally exempt from disclosure under Kansas Statute 45-221.
Police disciplinary records are public in Kentucky but subject to a general privacy exemption in KRS § 61.878(1)(a). Police departments may provide heavily redacted records that list disciplinary actions but exclude details about complaints, investigations, and findings. The Kentucky Attorney General's Office has affirmed in 03-ORD-213 and numerous other Open Records Decisions that disciplinary records for on-the-job misconduct should be treated as open records.
Louisiana's Public Records Act does not exclude police disciplinary records from release, but some police departments may withhold records on the basis of the state's constitutional right to privacy. In 2008, the Louisiana Court of Appeals ruled in City of Baton Rouge v. Capital City Press that police officers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy surrounding on-the-job conduct.
Police disciplinary records are confidential personnel records under Section 4-311 of Maryland's Public Information Act. A 2014 court case, Maryland Department of State Police v. Dashiell, affirmed that such records are exempt from disclosure, even when the requester seeks records about the investigation of his or her own complaint.
Official records of disciplinary action against a police officer are exempt from disclosure under the personnel file exemption in Massachusetts General Law c. 4, § 7(26)(c). However, complaints against an officer and internal affairs investigation files may still be available as public records.
Police disciplinary records are frequently withheld under Section 15.243.1(a) of Michigan's Freedom of Information Act, which exempts any "unwarranted invasion of privacy," and § 15.243.1(s), which exempts law enforcement personnel records unless there is an overriding public interest in disclosure.
Police disciplinary records are accessible to the public under Minnesota Statute § 13.43.
Police disciplinary records are exempt from public disclosure under Section 25-1-100 of the Mississippi Code.
Police disciplinary records are generally withheld as exempt personnel records under Section 610.021(13) of Missouri's Sunshine Law or under a case law privacy right, but in April 2015 the Missouri Court of Appeals found that police officers have no privacy interest in on-the-job misconduct and ordered the release of requested disciplinary records in Chasnoff v. St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners et al..
Under Montana Code § 2-6-102 and Article II, Section 10 of the Montana Constitution, police disciplinary records are exempt from disclosure if there is an "individual privacy interest that clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure." While records custodians in Montana routinely withhold these records, state case law tends to favor disclosure on appeal.
Police disciplinary records are exempt from disclosure under Nebraska Statute § 84-712.05(7).
Police disciplinary records are generally treated as confidential employee records in line with Section 284.718 of the Nevada Administrative Code.
Police disciplinary records are exempt from disclosure as personnel records under New Hampshire Statute § 91-A:5.
Police disciplinary records are confidential personnel records under Section 47:1A-10 of New Jersey's Open Public Records Act.
Some police departments have withheld disciplinary records on the grounds that their contents are "matters of opinion," which are exempt from disclosure under New Mexico Statute § 14-2-1(A)(3). The 1977 case Newsome v. Alarid interpreted that exemption to include "documents concerning infractions and disciplinary action," but the 2010 case Cox v. New Mexico Dep’t of Public Safety and the Attorney General's 2015 Public Records Compliance Guide hold that records of citizen complaints against police officers are public and non-exempt.
Police disciplinary records are confidential under New York Civil Rights Law § 50-a, which specifically exempts police, firefighter, and corrections officer personnel records from disclosure. Many other public employee personnel records are public.
County and city police disciplinary records are largely confidential under North Carolina General Statutes § 153A-98 and § 160A-168, respectively. The date of any suspension or demotion is public, but not the reason for the disciplinary action. If an officer is dismissed, the reason for the dismissal is public.
Police disciplinary records are public under North Dakota Century Code § 44-04-18.
Police disciplinary records are public under Ohio Code § 149.43.
Under Oklahoma Open Records Act § 51-24A.7, police personnel records may be kept confidential unless they are records of "final disciplinary action" resulting in loss of pay, suspension, demotion, or termination.
Police disciplinary records and other records concerning "personnel discipline actions" are generally exempt from disclosure under Oregon Revised Statute § 192.501(12).
Police disciplinary records are generally exempt from disclosure under Section 67.708(b) of Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know Law. If an officer is demoted or discharged, the reason for the action is exempt but the fact that the officer was demoted or discharged is public.
Under Rhode Island General Law § 38-2-2(4)(A)(I)(b), individual police disciplinary records are confidential. Aggregate information on complaints and misconduct in police departments is available with personally identifying information redacted.
Police disciplinary records may be withheld under South Carolina Code § 30-4-40, which exempts "unreasonable invasion[s] of personal privacy" from disclosure, but in 2004 the Court of Appeals ruled in Burton v. York Sheriff's Department that there was "a large and vital public interest" in police conduct that outweighed the privacy interests of the officers.
Police disciplinary records are confidential personnel records under South Dakota Codified Law § 1-27-1.5(7).
Police disciplinary records are not specifically exempt under Tennessee public records law, but local departments may still withhold such records by claiming they're pertinent to an active or recently-concluded criminal case.
Texas Government Code § 552 generally renders police disciplinary records public. However, many cities in Texas are also covered by Local Government Code § 143, which requires police departments to maintain civil service personnel files on each police officer. Those civil service files are available for public inspection and contain records of disciplinary actions, but only if the officer received at least a suspension or loss of pay. If the only discipline was a "written reprimand," the records are instead placed in a confidential internal file.
Local police departments may withhold disciplinary records under 1 V.S.A. § 317(c)(7), but in 2013 the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in Rutland Herald v. City of Rutland that the public interest in disclosure outweighed the officers' privacy interest in that case. Internal investigations of Vermont state troopers are conducted by the State Police Advisory Commission and confidential under 20 V.S.A. § 1923.
Police disciplinary records are exempt from disclosure under Section 2.2-3705.1 of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
Police disciplinary records are typically available under Washington's Public Records Act. The personal privacy exemption is narrowly defined, applying only to records that are "not of legitimate concern to the public" and the release of which would be "highly offensive."
West Virginia Code § 29B exempts records from disclosure if their release would constitute an "an unreasonable invasion of privacy." Police departments have frequently used this exemption to withhold disciplinary records, but in 2013 the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in Charleston Gazette v. Smithers that on-the-job police conduct does not fall under the invasion of privacy exemption.
Under Wisconsin Statute § 19.36(10)(b), police disciplinary records are public unless they pertain to an active investigation.
Police disciplinary records are confidential under Wyoming Statute § 16-4-203(d).