Have you had a bad experience with a police officer and would like to know if they have gone through disciplinary actions in the past?
Or are you just curious about the police disciplinary process?
Law enforcement disciplinary records are typically available to the public, but there are some rules you need to follow.
This guide on how to find police officer records will provide you with essential information.
- Access to Police Disciplinary Records By State
- Public Disclosure Problems
- How To Find Police Officer Records
- Accessing Police Personnel Records in a Criminal Case
- Finding Police Officer Records
Access to Police Disciplinary Records By State
If a police officer has a history of misconduct, can you find out about it? Well, it depends on where you live.
In a review of the relevant statutes and court cases in all 50 states of America, WNYC found that a police officer’s disciplinary history is technically confidential in most states.
In some states, the law protects these records from public view.
In others, records are touted as “secret” because police departments usually withhold them under vague legal standards.
States With Confidential Records
In 23 states, including Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Colorado, police officers’ disciplinary records are not available to the public.
It’s either because the personnel records are exempt from disclosure or are covered by a general privacy exemption.
In some states, such as New York, California, and Delaware, the law specifically states that law enforcement officers’ records are confidential.
Other states where police disciplinary records are deemed confidential are:
- New Jersey
- South Dakota
- Rhode Island
- North Carolina
States With Limited Records Availability
Fifteen states have limited availability of police personnel files which means the records are only available to the public in some situations.
In some of these states, only records of grave disciplinary actions such as a termination or suspension are accessible upon request, while the rest is confidential.
In others, accessibility varies by department due to the ambiguity of local laws and the evolving court precedents that deter access to such information.
These states include:
- New Mexico
- West Virginia
- South Carolina
In Michigan, police officer records were previously considered confidential.
However, in a 2016 landmark case, the court decided that access to personnel files is not only required by law but also a vital element of strong police-community relations.
Since that year, the Michigan police department has implemented a new policy to disclose police personnel information to the public upon request.
Meanwhile, the Honolulu Police Department has created a website where people can access annual summaries of the misconduct of individual police officers.
Lastly, the database compiles 20 years of records.
States With Public Records
Police disciplinary records are generally available to the public in the following states:
- North Dakota
The Florida Capitol Police recently launched a website that identifies officers with disciplinary actions or complaint records.
The online database shows the personnel who have been through disciplinary trials with the Training Commission and the Criminal Justice Standards for the past ten years.
It also includes cases where the Commission took action on a law enforcer’s certification for moral and character violations.
Such a database of complaints provides instant results that could take much longer through public records requests.
Public Disclosure Problems
Obtaining public information about police misconduct has long been a messy process, mainly because there is no federal database, and most states don’t have a comprehensive list either.
Some states provide “integrity bulletins” that contain data about complaints and disciplinary investigation outcomes but do not have specific identifying information, such as the officer’s name.
Moreover, experts say there’s tension between police records as public documents and officers’ privacy rights.
For the longest time, unions and officers’ bills of rights have fiercely guarded the privacy of law enforcers.
A 2020 report highlighted the findings from a national poll that shows 66% of people support making all disciplinary records of police officers available to the public.
In Utah, a Democrat sponsored a bill to require law enforcement agencies to adopt misconduct policies.
It also mandates that departments and their internal affairs provide information about misconduct investigations.
The bill passed unanimously in March 2022.
How To Find Police Officer Records
The process on how to find police officer records vary, depending on the state and police department.
Let’s take a look at some states’ policies and procedures when it comes to accessing police officers’ files.
In Alaska, personnel records are not explicitly confidential, but most police departments usually deny requests for such documents.
Under local ordinances, accessing these records constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
In Arkansas, police complaint records are not accessible publicly unless they pertain to an officer’s termination or suspension and there’s a compelling public interest in disclosure.
In California, a person can only obtain police personnel records if they are used as evidence in a civil or criminal proceeding. This process is known as a Pitches motion.
Under Evidence Code 1043 EC, such a request to inspect a law enforcer’s personnel file for evidence must include the following:
- A description of the types of records needed.
- The identification of the criminal court case, defendant, or officer whose records are subject to disclosure.
Police officer records are usually available under Washington Records Act.
According to this law, the personal privacy exemption applies only to files that are “not of legitimate” concern to the public.
Moreover, the same law prohibits releasing information that would be highly offensive to the department.
Police misconduct records are confidential under the state’s Civil Rights Law. It exempts police officers, firefighters, and correction officers from disclosing personnel records.
However, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) explicitly allows access to police disciplinary records.
According to FOIL, law enforcement documents now available for public access include:
- Complaints, allegations, and charges against an officer.
- A transcript of the hearing or trial
- Details about complaints
- The result of any disciplinary proceeding.
- A written opinion or memorandum about the disciplinary action.
Law enforcement disciplinary records are confidential in this state.
You may be able to view the date of suspension or demotion of an officer but not the reason for the disciplinary action.
However, if an officer is dismissed, the reason for the dismissal is made public.
Police disciplinary records in the State of Texas are generally available to the public.
However, many cities are also covered by Local Government Code 143, which requires police departments to maintain personnel files on each officer.
Those files are available for public inspection only if the officer has received a suspension or loss of pay.
The records are kept in a confidential internal file if the disciplinary action was simply a written reprimand.
Accessing Police Personnel Records in a Criminal Case
In a criminal proceeding, a defendant can use a law enforcer’s record to discredit a witness or support an affirmative defense.
When the testimony of the police officer is being challenged, the defendant can use the police personnel files to demonstrate the following:
- Any public grievances and citizen complaints brought against the officer
- Any conflicts in which the officer was present
- A negative or behavioral issue on the part of the police officer, such as lying or using excessive force
Depending on the individual jurisdiction, a person must follow a specific procedure when obtaining police personnel records.
They cannot get files automatically as the prosecution cannot provide all documents.
The prosecution officer will only provide documents pertinent to the case.
The human resource unit of the police department is usually responsible for managing and storing personnel files and records.
Agencies and departments have varying rules governing who can access personnel files, as these documents are considered private information.
Depending on the jurisdiction where the request is made, there are different procedures for requesting police officer records.
What Will the Personnel Files Reveal?
This information can detail the officer’s job history at the police station or division where they are employed.
It can include performance evaluations, misconduct issues, warnings, and negative behavioral traits.
Furthermore, these records can tell if the officer has received a similar complaint or was involved in a previous incident.
How Can You Make a Record Request?
Your first step is to submit a written request to the agency where the police officer works.
There could be instances when the law enforcement agency will refuse to hand over complete personnel records.
As discussed earlier, police departments can refuse requests, especially if they find no compelling reason to disclose the files.
Finding Police Officer Records
Finding police officer records can be challenging due to the lack of laws and policies that support them.
Depending on where you live, you might have a difficult time accessing the misconduct records of a police officer, especially if the issue didn’t merit a suspension or termination.
However, if you need the record for a judicial proceeding, you can submit a request to the police department where the officer works.
In most cases, these files can be disclosed, especially if you need them to challenge the testimony of the police officer.