D.C. Court Files in WAMU Reporting Shed Light on Shaky Police Stops (And Show Value of Public Records Access)

Patrick Madden of WAMU-FM reports today (19) on District of Columbia police conduct using data from almost 500 sworn statements accompanying 1,713 gun charges filed in court 2010-15. He shows 40 percent were dismissed--tossed by the judge or withdrawn by the prosecutor after further review. (The data don't include arrests where prosecutors decline at the outset to proceed with charges, called "no papering."  All the cases studied had been filed in court, generating a criminal record for the accused. So the full extent of flawed street stops and arrests is unknown.)

Stop-and-frisk tactics elsewhere have been subject of intense research and legal challenge.

In D.C., the public has been concerned with over-aggressive street tactics that police say are needed to find and get rid of guns in the city. Video of one such incident drew much attention in recent weeks.

For transparency advocates, Madden’s reporting also showcases the utility of public records—made into valuable reporting in this case through the work of student researchers in the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the School of Communications at American University.

Online records in D.C. Superior Court were searched electronically for cases with only gun charges, then case files on courthouse computers were reviewed to locate officers’ sworn statements of what they did in the street. (Online access to full case files only became available for new cases last year.)

The D.C. Council has several pending bills to require the court to automatically seal some records, especially of charges dismissed.

The bills’ advocates say that will help victims of misconduct fight the stigma accompanying even arrests that went nowhere. Data users and the DC Open Government Coalition argue the important role of access to full data for public accountability, such as the important question the Madden report raises based on these open records -- why are 40 percent of D.C. gun charges so shaky they can’t be prosecuted? 

The Council plans to take up the bills again in late October or early November, according to the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.