Use-of-Force Cases Prompt State Debates Over Officer Records

DENVER (AP) -
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal makes a statement at a new conference in Newark, N.J. (Steve Hockstein/NJ Advance Media via AP)

Lawmakers in more than 20 states have considered bills this year to make the disciplinary records of police officers public or to share them with other agencies, a push that comes amid high-profile deaths at the hands of law enforcement. About 20 states still largely prohibit their release, however.

Supporters of greater transparency say it could help improve police accountability, build trust with the community and prevent officers with disciplinary problems who leave one department from being hired by another.

Opponents say the release of such records could harm the reputations of officers with only minor infractions or even put them in danger. They also argue that disciplinary actions are part of personnel records, which are exempt from state open records laws.

But amid growing nationwide protests against alleged excessive force by police officers, at least 16 states have contemplated measures to release such records, or summaries of them, publicly. Another eight have discussed making the records accessible to other law enforcement agencies.

In North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature, lawmakers want to create a confidential database from which law enforcement agencies in the state can track all disciplinary actions to prevent officers from hiding past problems when looking for a new job.

“We enable agencies to better screen individuals … so that we can weed out who the bad apples are,” said Republican state Sen. Danny Britt.

Under an expansive police reform bill Britt is sponsoring, authorities also would track all use of force by officers resulting in serious injury or death. And the legislation would create an “early warning system” to collect data on citizens’ complaints and any transgressions with the aim of correcting an officer’s behavior before it leads to a deadly outcome.

Maryland has gone further, approving the release of records related to formal misconduct complaints. The Democrat-controlled Legislature overrode a veto by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who objected to the public release of complaints that haven’t been substantiated. Supporters contend the public has a right to see how police departments investigate complaints against officers.

In Maryland, the move is part of a sweeping police reform package that was prompted by the 2018 death of Anton Black, a 19-year-old African American who died in a rural Maryland town after officers pinned him to the ground for more than five minutes as they handcuffed him and shackled his legs.

One of the officers, Thomas Webster, had nearly 30 use-of-force complaints lodged against him while previously working in neighboring Delaware. Webster also had been charged with second-degree assault in that state for allegedly kicking a Black man in the head, but was acquitted in 2015.

Anton Black’s sister, LaToya Holley, said she hopes the new law translates into quicker answers for the families of anyone who dies at the hands of police.

“They need to work on trust,” she said of law enforcement. “There isn’t that much trust in the community.”

Other states seeking to address policing problems had already taken action before this year.

New York lawmakers last year repealed a law that had blocked public disclosure of disciplinary records for police officers, firefighters and correctional officers. Hawaii took similar action, allowing the public to learn the details of more than 80 cases of unwarranted assault and more than 100 cases of officers filing false reports or covering up infractions.

In New Jersey last year, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, without waiting for legislation, ordered local and state police to release the names and summaries of disciplinary records of officers who had been fired, demoted or suspended for more than five days. Grewal said the information was needed to promote community trust and police accountability amid protests against the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.

For their part, members of New Jersey’s Democrat-controlled legislature considered but have failed to pass a bill this year to make police records public, though an early warning system of the kind being considered by North Carolina is already in place.

Meanwhile, nothing has come of Grewal’s order yet because of a legal challenge by law enforcement unions. They argue that personnel records are exempt under state open records laws, and that officers and their families could be put at risk if they are made public.

Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said many officers who have dealt with problems like that have gone on to have good careers. Colligan said he would support the release of records only for major infractions, such as excessive force and civil rights violations, from now on.