CARBONDALE, Illinois — Below is an analysis of public record laws in all 50 states. It is based on an analysis of statutes and court opinions as well as interviews with experts. To stay up to date with the rapidly changing laws, visit Legislative Responses for Policing-State Bill Tracking Databas e.
This reporting is funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Police disciplinary records are available to the public, but agencies can require that requesters state the reason for their request.
A 1995 opinion by then Alabama Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened the door to agencies withholding documents, said Sam Stecklow, a journalist with the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalistic group focused on public accountability.
Agencies can deny requests because the release of the records “could reasonably be expected to be detrimental to the public safety or welfare, and records the disclosure of which would otherwise be detrimental to the best interests of the public.” Stecklow also points out that the law does not address release of misconduct records where there is no punishment.
Alabama enacted a law this spring to create a statewide database of police misconduct to help police departments avoid hiring officers with problems. But the law closes the database to the public.
Police misconduct records in Alaska are generally not available because state employee’s personnel and disciplinary records are exempted from the Alaska Public Records Act (A.S. 39.25.080). There is also no database that tracks shootings or use of force in the state.
The Alaska Supreme Court ruled last year that disciplinary records for Alaskan State Troopers are confidential. Alaska has come under fire from local media organizations and the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press for this exception.
When a police department fires an officer or disciplines an officer for serious misconduct, it must report the discipline to the Alaska Police Standards Council. If the disciplined officer does not contest the action, the information is confidential. If the officer contests the action, there is a public hearing process.
Dozens of police officers with criminal records have worked in Alaska’s cities, despite a state law that should have disqualified them, an investigation by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica found. One of these officers was Nimeron Mike, a registered sex offender who had spent six years in prison and been convicted of assault, domestic violence and other crimes.
Police misconduct records are generally available to the public as long as any investigation concerning the misbehavior has been completed according to Arizona Statute 39-128. Local TV station abc15 compiled the “Brady lists” from all the counties – lists of officers not considered honest enough to testify in court. The lists totaled 1,400 officers. The station found that prosecutors often failed to disclose that an officer was on the list.
The Arizona House passed a bill this year, supported by the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, that would have closed the list. It hasn’t passed the Senate.
Another investigation conducted by the Arizona Republic, discovered that Phoenix police frequently purge officers’ records to keep police misconduct a secret.
Arizona also provides an “integrity bulletin” in accordance with the National Decertification Index on the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training’s website but it doesn’t disclose the names of officers disciplined in this bulletin. Arizona is one of 11 states that provides this public bulletin.
Police misconduct records are not available to the public unless one can prove a compelling public interest and they deal with an officer’s official suspension or termination. Personnel records are not eligible to be requested to the extent that disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy according to Arkansas Code § 25-19-105.
In 2018 the state’s legislature passed SB1421, the Right To Know Act, which grants access to certain instances of excessive use of force, any incident where an officer fires a gun at a person and records relating to sexual misconduct. Before this, most law enforcement misconduct records were closed and typically could not be obtained by the public, or the court system for criminal proceedings.
Instances where the public can access police misconduct records in California include:
● An incident regarding the discharge of a firearm.
● An incident in which use of force by an officer resulted in death or serious injury.
● An incident in which a sustained finding was made by any law enforcement agency or oversight agency that a peace officer or custodial officer engaged in sexual assault involving a member of the public.
● An incident in which a sustained finding was made by any law enforcement agency or oversight agency of dishonesty by a peace officer or custodial officer directly relating to the reporting, investigation, or prosecution of a crime, or directly relating to the reporting of, or investigation of misconduct by, another peace officer or custodial officer, including, but not limited to, any sustained finding of perjury, false statements, filing false reports, destruction, falsifying, or concealing of evidence.
Anything falling outside of these categories is still restricted.
“Most investigations into allegations of police misconduct are still closed under the law,” Stecklow said.
Police misconduct records will be made public in Colorado under SB 20-2017, the state’s criminal justice reform bill, which goes into full effect in 2023.
Before, these records were often denied but now agencies will be required to release unedited audio and video footage from body and dash cameras of any incident where misconduct is alleged.
“Other transparency provisions in the bill include the public reporting, in an online searchable database, of extensive information on use of force by law enforcement officers that results in death or serious injuries and the reporting of interactions between officers and the public,” according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
But Stecklow points out the new law is limited because “it is not retroactive and has language that currently requires requesters to know of specific instances of misconduct, rather than allowing requests for records in general.”
Police misconduct records in Connecticut are generally public because of the precedent set by the state Supreme Court in 1993 in Perkins V. Freedom of Information Commission, which stated records could be withheld only if they do not pertain to matters of public concern. However a new contract with state troopers limits the access to misconduct records by only making them accessible if a complaint is sustained. Most complaints are not sustained.
According to a study compiled by the ACLU of Connecticut, many departments make it difficult to file a misconduct complaint against an officer and 42% of the departments in the state surveyed by the ACLU suggested that they are not complying with state law requiring public access to complaint policies.
A new contract for State Police running from 2018-2022 passed in Connecticut’s Legislature will make it more difficult to access troopers’ personnel files. Any misconduct investigations that end with an officer being exonerated or a complaint labeled as “unfounded” or lacking evidence, would be closed to the public.
Connecticut is one of the 11 states that provide an integrity bulletin in accordance with the National Decertification Index where it makes the names of these officers public.
However this integrity bulletin doesn’t provide 100% transparency and an investigation by the ACLU of Connecticut f ound that none of the prosecutors had “Brady lists” of dishonest cops.
WASHINGTON, D.C – MOSTLY CLOSED
Police misconduct records are mostly closed in D.C., but activists, including the DC Open Government Coalition, are pushing for reform.
The Washington City Paper reports that the D.C. government regularly invokes the “personal privacy” exemptions in Section 2-534(a)(2) of the D.C. Freedom of Information Act. Strong police unions advocate keeping the records private.
Police misconduct records are closed and exempt from public disclosure in Delaware by both the Delaware Freedom of Information Act and under section 12 of the state’s Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.
According to the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, law enforcement organizations in Delaware are sometimes willing to provide general statistics but are usually unwilling to provide specific records in response to information requests.
“Fifteen states have versions of a LEOBOR (Law Enforcement Bill of Rights) statute, but only Delaware’s statute makes internal police investigation records completely confidential forever,” according to the ACLU of Delaware.
Law enforcement misconduct records in Florida are generally available under the state’s Freedom of Information Act/Sunshine laws (Florida Statute 119) if the investigation is closed. All active investigations are exempt from public information requests until they are closed or completed.
Misconduct records in Florida are sent to a database that is maintained by the state’s Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission and this is open for public inspection.
Florida is one of the 11 states that provides an integrity bulletin in accordance with the National Decertification Index where offending officers’ names are public.
Under the Georgia Open Records Act, law enforcement misconduct records are available to the public unless the investigation into the misconduct is active and ongoing.
Law enforcement misconduct records in Hawaii are closed unless they relate to the firing of an officer or if the records in question pertaining to an officer’s suspension are part of a pending court case. These records are also destroyed after 30 months according to a police spokeswoman interviewed by the Honolulu Civil Beat.
The Honolulu Civil Beat found a group of Honolulu officers falsified drunk driving tickets to get overtime but kept their jobs, despite 200 DUI cases being dismissed as a result.
In another case, Russel Won beat an inmate and watched his sergeant club him in the head with a blackjack, according to the Civil Beat. A federal grand jury charged him with a felony for lying about the incident; he pled down to a misdemeanor. He was allowed to take a leave of absence while he served his prison sentence but remained a cop, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
More of these cases can be viewed here.
A new law amending Hawaii’s public record laws passed the state legislature in July, 2020. It requires county police departments to disclose to the Legislature the identity of an officer suspended or discharged. It also allows public access to information about suspended officers.
Law enforcement misconduct records are closed under Idaho’s Freedom of Information Act requests according to Section 74-106 of the Idaho Public Records Ac t.
Most law enforcement misconduct records in Illinois are available because of the precedent set in 2014 in Kalven V. City of Chicago.
Law enforcement agencies in Illinois must provide a “misconduct registry” detailing general information about what an officer was cited for.
In June 2020, in City of Chicago V. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that misconduct records must be preserved and cannot be destroyed every five years, as the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police advocated.
There is a Professional Conduct Database maintained by the state board responsible for certifying and decertifying officers. Local police departments must report to the database when an officer resigns, is fired or is suspended for violating department policy. However a police reform law passed this year closes the database including supporting documents. To get statewide records, a person would have to contact each of the hundreds of police departments.
The Indiana legislature passed a bi-partisan police reform law this spring, signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, that provides publication of the names of decertified officer s on the website of the Indiana law enforcement academy. But Stecklow says the law allows police agencies to close cases where there is no discipline.
The Indiana Law Enforcement Training Board has revoked 45 licenses since 2007, with only five in the past two years.
Indiana is one of the 11 states that provides an integrity bulletin in accordance with the National Decertification Index where it makes the names of these officers public.
Law enforcement records in Iowa are closed but in cases where officers are fired the fact that they were fired can be stated under Iowa Code § 22-7-11.
However even when records should be public under Iowa’s law, law enforcement agencies find ways to deny them. Newspapers have taken cases to the Iowa Supreme Court because agencies have refused to turn over names and records relevant to the public.
Law enforcement misconduct records are closed under the Kansas Open Records Act (Kansas Statute 45-221.) SB270 would make certain law enforcement disciplinary/misconduct records available to the public and prevent the hiring of officers with a history of serious misconduct allegations. It is still in the State’s Senate Judiciary Committee.
Kansas is one of the 11 states that provide an integrity bulletin in accordance with the National Decertification Index, but it does not disclose the names of officers disciplined unless the names are requested.
The Kansas City Star has been fighting these exemptions to obtain records of the Overland Park severance agreement with former officer Clayton Jennison, who shot a 17-year-old to death in 2018 while making a “welfare check” on the youth.
Access to police misconduct records through the Kentucky Open Records Act is limited and up to the discretion of the law enforcement agency or department involved.
Departments can use KRS § 61.878(1)(a) to claim a general exemption for the records because of privacy concerns for the employee or officer. However, the Kentucky Attorney General has ruled that for the most part, misconduct records should be made public and specified this in the Linda Toler v. City of Muldraugh case in 2004 (03-ORD-213.)
An investigation by the Louisville Courier Journal uncovered that police concealed and lied about as many as 750,000 documents in an investigation of sexual misconduct by officers in the “Explorer Scout program” where police were abusing minors. The Courier Journal sued to uncover these records and a small portion was released. The FBI has since opened an investigation into the Explorer program.
Law enforcement misconduct records are generally public and are not an exception to the Louisiana Sunshine Laws, but some departments may try to deny them based on the State’s privacy protections. In one such case, the city of Baton Rouge tried to deny records to the Capital City Press and the paper appealed the decision.
While misconduct records in Louisiana are mostly public, an investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center found serious gaps in the collection of other police data by law enforcement agencies, including data dealing with racial profiling.
Law enforcement misconduct records are available to the public if the investigation is completed or closed. However, investigations that don’t result in discipline or that have findings that are not sustained are not made available to the public.
An investigation conducted by the Bangor Daily News and the Pulitzer Center found that these records often hide misconduct and lack transparency, by not fully describing the incidents in question. Maine only requires that the final findings of an investigation are public, according to their reporting, not the internal investigations leading up to a disciplinary decision.
One of the examples cited by the Bangor Daily is the case of Matthew Shiers, whose public records show that he was fired, but exclude that the internal investigation was prompted by the fact he was charged with aggravated assault, domestic violence and cruelty to animals after fighting with his girlfriend.
In April 2021 the state’s House and Senate passed “Anton’s Law” which will expand access to police misconduct records and increase the use of body cameras in the state, where previously law enforcement investigations and misconduct records were sealed to the public in Maryland. The law, passed over the governor’s veto, also repealed the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.
Now the public will have access to misconduct records.
A new law opens law enforcement misconduct records in Massachusetts, which had previously been closed.
Police misconduct records are not explicitly secret in Michigan, however they are often denied and considered an unwarranted invasion of privacy under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (Section 15.243.1(a)).
This summer, Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel, called for the creation of a database that would track police misconduct statewide through the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards.
The database has not been created.
Law enforcement misconduct records are open to the public under Minnesota’s Public Record Laws.
Minnesota is one of the 11 states that provides an integrity bulletin in accordance with the National Decertification Index where it discloses the names of disciplined officers.
Law enforcement misconduct records are closed and inaccessible to the public.
Law enforcement misconduct is usually secret in Missouri, but in 2015 a Missouri court ordered the release of police misconduct records relating to police abuse of World Series tickets Chasnoff v. St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners. The court said police had no right to privacy in the records. Stecklow explains, “The Chasnoff decision hinged on whether the allegations being investigated could have a criminal element or not; if yes, the records should be released.”
The state’s POST commission does not disclose the names of officers decertified, although it responds to requests for information, Stecklow says. Also information becomes public if an officer contests decertification and appeals to a hearing board.
Police records are generally withheld from the public through Montana Code § 2-6-102 and Article II, Section 10 of the Montana Constitution. The phrasing in section 10 of the Montana constitution, below, “The right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest” allows police departments to argue that most public disclosure of police records does not have a good enough public benefit to justify harming an officer’s individual privacy. However, in some cases, judges have ruled in favor of the records being disclosed under section 9 of the Montana constitution.
Montana is one of the 11 states that provides an integrity bulletin to the National Decertification Index but it does not disclose the names of officers decertified unless the names are requested.
Law enforcement misconduct records are secret in Nebraska.
A proposed bill that was introduced in the state’s legislature Jan. 20 2021, would create a police misconduct database, but it has yet to be voted on.
Law enforcement misconduct records are restricted in Nevada and it is up to the discretion of individual law enforcement agencies if they are disclosed.
Law enforcement misconduct records were closed in New Hampshire under a personnel exemption to public record requests, but 2020 state Supreme Court decisions limited the use of the personnel exemption and opened some records.
For example, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that lists of police with credibility issues, such as the “Laurie List” of 270 dishonest officers cannot be kept confidential. But the court still has to determine if release of the names violated the officers’ privacy rights.
Law enforcement misconduct records have historically been closed in New Jersey, but the attorney general won a court decision last year that would open the records of the officers who faced discipline for the most serious misconduct.
Police departments have routinely used New Mexico Statute 14-2-1 (A)(3) to withhold records from the public. The statute says that some records are matters of opinion, so the department will argue that the disciplinary account is simply one’s opinion regarding the officer and the resulting disciplinary action. But a 2009 state attorney general’s opinion and a 2010 state court decision Cox v. New Mexico Dep’t of Public Safety found that citizen complaints should generally be open.
NEW YORK-MOSTLY PUBLIC
Law enforcement misconduct records became public in New York in August 2020 following nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.
New York’s police unions strongly opposed this change and five of them united and sued the state when it passed.
They were unsuccessful in preventing the release of records and a database revealed more than three decades of complaints.
Some police departments are still finding ways to make conduct inaccessible, like when the Town of Manlius Police Department in New York attempted to charge the non-profit organization MuckRock $47,504 to access their records.
NORTH CAROLINA-MOSTLY CLOSED
Law enforcement misconduct records are secret in North Carolina. If an officer is dismissed, demoted, or suspended the disciplinary action and date are publicly available but not the reason. (NCS § 153A-98 and § 160A-168,).
NORTH DAKOTA-MOSTLY PUBLIC
Law enforcement misconduct records are available to the public in North Dakota.
Law enforcement misconduct records are available to the public in Ohio.
Records of police officers can only be publicly accessed if they are records of an officer losing pay, being suspended, being demoted, or being terminated (51 O.S. §24A.8).
Law enforcement misconduct records are mostly closed in Oregon and are often denied if there is no discipline, according to Stecklow.
Decertified police officers in Oregon and are tracked in a statewide online database maintained by the agency responsible for law enforcement certification. This database was created during a special legislative session in 2020 that called for more police accountability. Oregon does release the names of officers who have been decertified in the state. It began doing this after the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Oregon is one of the 11 states that provides an integrity bulletin in accordance with the National Decertification Index, but it doesn’t not disclose the names of officers disciplined unless they are requested.
Law enforcement misconduct records are mostly closed in Pennsylvania and their release is up to the discretion of the law enforcement agency, according to Stecklow
Under the state’s Right to Know Act, a performance rating or review, all documents relating to written criticisms of an employee, grievance material, documents related to discrimination or sexual harassment, information regarding discipline, demotion or discharge contained in a personnel file, arbitration transcripts and opinions, most complaints of potential criminal conduct, and investigative materials, notes, correspondence, videos and reports are all secret and exempt from public record requests (Section 67.708(b) of Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law).
If an officer is discharged or demoted, the fact but not the reason of the disciplinary action will be made public.
In 2020 Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill into law that created a database to track police misconduct statewide and force agencies to check the database before hiring an officer. Like Illinois, this database is confidential and off limits to the public.
RHODE ISLAND-MOSTLY CLOSED
Law enforcement misconduct records are secret in Rhode Island.
The public has restricted access to law enforcement misconduct records in South Carolina.
South Carolina police departments have kept records from being released based on South Carolina statute 30-4-40 saying certain releases of information would be a violation of officers’ privacy. This was pushed back against in Burton v. York Sheriff’s Department which said that public interest often outweighed the privacy interest of police officer cases. In certain instances, records can be released with the personal identifying information of the officer involved is redacted.
SOUTH DAKOTA-MOSTLY CLOSED
Law enforcement misconduct records are secret in South Dakota.
Law enforcement misconduct records are fairly accessible according to the Tennessee code. In certain cases however, such as Contemporary Media v. Gilless departments have been able to hold records by arguing that they were part of ongoing or recent criminal investigations. If personal information of an officer is included in requested reports, the officer must be notified.
However an investigation by WREG in Memphis Tennessee, found that some departments are using an outdated, paper based system that makes it nearly impossible to receive the requested data, or charges the requester excessive fees.
The July 2020 article said: “In January, WREG asked for records of excessive force and firearm discharge from 2015 to 2019. We were told that would cost nearly $7,500 because there were 24,000 pages of documents and it would take 88 hours to retrieve and redact information. On Feb. 6, we narrowed the timeline to just six months. Now almost six months later, we’re still waiting.”
TEXAS-RESTRICTED DEPENDING ON CITY
According to research conducted by WNYC radio: “ 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.”
Law enforcement records are public in Utah unless their release would interfere with an active investigation.
Utah is one of the 11 states that provides an integrity bulletin in accordance with the National Decertification Index, but it doesn’t disclose the names of officers disciplined in this bulletin.
“Only cases that result in discipline are always public,” Stecklow said. “The rest are subject to a balancing test weighing privacy and public interests, and which can often come down on the side of privacy.”
Vermont keeps the names of officers about whom complaints are filed secret unless a state board decides to impose discipline, in which case the names and details are public.
Records containing the names of officers who engaged in misconduct should be released if the public interest outweighs the privacy interest of the officer, the state courts ruled in Rutland Herald v. City of Rutland where the court ordered release of the names of officers who had viewed pornography on departmental computers.
Vermont is one of the 11 states that provides an i ntegrity bulletin in accordance with the National Decertification Index, and it makes the names of these officers public.
Law enforcement misconduct records are secret in Virginia ( Section 2.2-3705.1 of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act).
Law enforcement misconduct records are available to the public in Washington.
Washington is one of the 11 states that provides an integrity bulletin in accordance with the National Decertification Index, and it makes the names of decertified officers public.
Similar to Vermont and South Carolina, police departments can withhold records if they would be against privacy interests (statute 29B 1-4), but often courts will rule that public interest outweighs privacy interests of officers.
Charleston Gazette v. Smithers set the precedent that conduct of police officers while they are on the job is public record. This rule is now in the West Virginia Code 29B.
Law enforcement records are generally available to the public in Wisconsin.
Law enforcement misconduct records are kept secret and hidden from the public in Wyoming.
Kallie Cox is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper of Southern Illinois University Carbondale and can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @KallieECox. William H. Freivogel is a professor at Southern Illinois University and member of the Missouri Bar. Zora Raglow-DeFranco, a law student at Case Western, contributed to this report. This story is part of a project on police accountability funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.