Keep drubbings by police open to the public

This week a New Jersey appeals court ruled that police use-of-force reports are public records. The township of West Milford claimed that the reports were ongoing investigations so they didn’t have to be made public. The court disagreed. The record is about when an officer uses a gun, taser, club, etc., not about a criminal investigation.

Good for the court. Use-of-force records should be open to the public to make sure police are held accountable for the power we give them to restrain people with force – sometimes lethal force. I remember looking at lawsuits and claims against a city I covered to find hundreds of thousands of dollars being paid out to compensate victims of overzealous officers (three of the officers were called “the cowboys” because of their propensity to go wild with their batons).

Request and analyze use-of-force reports in your town to see how how officers are handling suspects. Also look at claims against the agency and lawsuits. The problem is that even in states where the reports are clearly public records, agencies often will try to keep them secret and say they aren’t public, or just ignore your request. For example, a group of college students requested taser-use records from hundreds of Texas police agencies in 2006 and found that 74 out of 254 (29%) sheriffs ignored the requests. One of my students requested use-of-force records from all police agencies in Arizona in 2007 and 42% didn’t even respond (and only 9 out of 104 actually provided the records). It’s a shame that police, sworn to uphold the law, often ignore it. Like in Chicago, where a court ruled Tuesday that citizen complaints against police officers can be kept secret. That’s just wrong.

Don’t walk away. Keep after those records and keep our government accountable.

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