Coalition Welcomes Open Police Records Bill
Fritz Mulhauser | July 18, 2021 | Last modified: July 20, 2021
D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson has proposed legislation to allow public access to most police disciplinary records.
A broad police reform bill introduced last Monday (12) would amend the D.C. Freedom of Information Act so that exemptions used for years by police officials to deny public records requests will no longer apply. In addition, each officer’s disciplinary history must be in a public database by December 2023. These steps were recommended by the Police Reform Commission in April and follow similar legislative moves in California and New York.
The D.C. Open Government Coalition has long argued that D.C. police have taken extreme and incorrect legal positions on officer privacy that obscure the facts of misconduct investigations and discipline. A Washington City Paper article by Mitch Ryals in 2020 was headlined, “How the D.C. Police Department, DOJ, and D.C. Attorney General’s Office Shield Cops’ Bad Acts”—and is a finalist in the Association of Alternative Newsmedia 2021 awards competition.
The mayor’s office for years has rejected appeals of police denials of complaint records again based on claims of officers’ privacy. And the position of the department in court cases has been that it need not follow interpretations of privacy such as by the Office of Open Government that differ from theirs. At least as to discipline records, the new bill would end that decades-old controversy.
“As community conversations here and many other places have shown in the last year, few governmental activities are more in need of the disinfectant of sunlight than policing. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department is no exception,” said Open Government Coalition president Thomas Susman in a statement.
He added, “Access to disciplinary records is central to promoting accountability. Chairman Mendelson’s proposal to shine sunlight into this dark corner of police department administration is overdue — and welcome.”
The bill also establishes a deputy auditor just for police in the Council’s audit office and broadens the authority of the police complaint office and board, renamed Office of Police Accountability and Police Accountability Commission. The new deputy auditor position is designed to assure quality investigations but also is assigned to “improve system transparency including improving public disclosure procedures” of MPD. The Coalition has for years criticized these in many respects.
The introduction came as the D.C. Council finished work for the summer. The bill amends several laws so will be considered in the fall by both the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee of the Whole. Judiciary Committee chair, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), told the Post he welcomed the proposal and would consider it with other police reforms in coming months.
The mayor, police chief and police union offered no comment to Peter Hermann and Michael Brice-Saddler reporting for the Post or to Martin Austermuhle who reported on the bill for WAMU/DCist.
D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson did comment to the Post, welcoming the new deputy slot. Michael Tobin, director of the D.C. Office of Police Complaints, also was positive in comments quoted in the Post on changes proposed for his office. Patterson has already commissioned outside reviews of MPD investigations of police shootings. And Tobin has repeatedly urged a wider role for his office beyond deciding complaints, for example in recommending discipline, which the bill adds. He has spoken also of the “opaque” discipline process and the need for the kind of transparency the bill would provide as a way to begin to rebuild community trust.
Opening discipline records elsewhere has drawn strong opposition from police unions, typically predicting increased risk to officers from angry citizens. California legislation finally passed in 2018 after decades of failed attempts, when outgoing Governor Jerry Brown signed it at the very end of his third and final term in office. The battle continued with years of offical delay, litigation and destruction of records to prevent disclosure.
New York in June 2020 ended its own decades-old state law that kept police complaint and discipline records secret. Union opposition ended by court action only a few weeks ago. “Many other states make similar misconduct records at least partially available to the public without any evidence of a resulting increase of danger to police officers,” the federal Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled in February. Technical infractions need not be released under the New York law, a provision copied in the D.C. proposal.
If you can help the Coalition support the legislation as the D.C. Council considers it in coming months, contact us at email@example.com.