HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Public Access to Information
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Too often, the police and city officials respond to reports on police abuse by special commissions or nongovernmental organizations by criticizing the authors as misinformed or biased instead of considering the reports' findings. Generally, police departments will claim that they have fixed the problems identified, or that the authors have not provided a full story about the cases described, usually meaning that the police departments' views have not been accepted (or made available to the authors).64

In researching its 1996 report on New York City's police department, Amnesty International was denied statistics and case information it requested from the police department. Once the report was published, officials criticized it for not providing a complete picture of police abuse in the city, largely for the lack of information withheld by the department itself. The mayor and police commissioner called the report "one-sided," "inaccurate" and "anecdotal" for relying, in part, on informationfrom victims and their attorneys.65 The accounts of victims, however, cannot be so easily disregarded; and if official data were lacking, this was because the department as a general rule refuses to release information about human rights violations committed by police and disciplinary responses.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has published several reports on Los Angeles-area police departments, and its reports have been criticized by officials as incomplete. For example, after the group published a report criticizing the LAPD's high-speed chase policies, one commander called it a "very hastily done report" and added: "[T]hey did not have all the facts."66

In researching this report, Human Rights Watch requested information from police departments and city attorneys' offices in all the cities covered. Few provided the requested information in a timely way. Indeed, a year or more after our initial requests, and despite repeated follow-up queries, several departments still had not provided information. Regarding disciplinary actions taken against officers, information is rarely provided: police departments will sometimes provide statistics regarding disciplinary actions taken, but the information is too general to link types of offenses with disciplinary sanctions, or police departments simply claim that a certain officer was dealt with "appropriately," leaving outside monitors and the public in the dark about what actually happened.

In each city we examined, activists, attorneys representing alleged victims of abuse, and members of the media reported enormous frustration in obtaining police department data that should, in fact, be public information. In New Orleans, an attorney who frequently represents police abuse victims has tried repeatedly to obtain information about civil-lawsuit settlements and civil jury awards paid by the city, but has been denied this information, though it is clearly covered under the state's public access law.67 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution repeatedly requested information in 1995 and 1996 about police shooting cases in that city; although Georgia's Open Records Act requires disclosure, the department did not provide all of the information the newspaper requested.

Community police abuse monitors have been attempting to obtain files concerning citizen complaints, investigations, and disciplinary actions from the Providence, R.I. police department for the past seventeen years.68 In June 1996, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the monitors, asserting:

    [T]ell me how it would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy to disclose the name of a police officer who performs his or her duties in public, who has one of the most visible and important jobs in this society, and now has been determined to have brutalized somebody. What is the privacy interest there, and why would the city want to protect the name of that individual?69

As stated succinctly by police abuse expert and attorney Lynne Wilson:

    Police misconduct is a matter of strong public interest. Even though many departments name their self-investigative units "internal affairs bureaus," police misconduct is the public's business, not simply an "internal" departmental matter....[C]itizens, not police department officials, are the ultimate arbiters of what police behavior is acceptable in a democratic society....Law enforcement officers wield extensive authority in the exercise of their duties....[W]hether those officers, trained and paid at taxpayers' expense, use excessive force in carrying out their responsibilities or otherwise misuse their authority is clearly the public's business.70

In Chicago, attorneys fought to have an internal police report about torture allegations by police detectives released to the public. The court found in favor of the public's right to know:

    No legitimate purpose is served by conducting [police internal] investigations under a veil of near total secrecy. Rather, knowledge that alimited number of persons, as well as a state or federal court, may examine the file in the event of civil litigation may serve to insure that these investigations are carried out in an even handed fashion, that the statements are carefully and accurately taken, and that the true facts came to light, whether they reflect favorably or unfavorably on the individual police officers involved or on the department as a whole.71

Indeed, even complainants themselves are not allowed access to information relating to investigations into complaints they have filed. In an informal telephone survey conducted by Human Rights Watch, police departments examined in this report were asked whether a complainant would have access to internal investigation information.72 In several cities - Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, New York, and Washington, D.C. - the internal affairs units responded that no investigative files could be obtained or viewed by the complainant. In Minneapolis, a complainant may access the investigative file if the complaint is sustained, while in Portland, if the complaint is sustained, the complainant does not have access to the file. In Philadelphia, we were informed that the file may be viewed after the investigation has been completed. Detroit's internal affairs unit stated that a formal freedom-of-information request would be necessary, but even then the file would probably not be made available. In Los Angeles, the complainant would need a subpoena to view the investigatory file. In San Francisco, some information is available to the complainant.73

64 Few reports on the issue of police abuse are published by nongovernmental organizations, except in the largest cities.

65 Graham Rayman, "Report sees brutality in NYPD," New York Newsday, June 27, 1996.

66 Jim Newton, "LAPD calls its policy on chasing cars fundamentally sound," Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1996, quoting Commander Art Lopez.

67 Louisiana Revised Statute Title 44:5. After a significant delay, Human Rights Watch was finally provided with this information in June 1997 after threatening to file a lawsuit to force the city to turn over the data.

68 Bruce Landis, "Despite challenges, police-brutality complaints remain sealed," Providence Journal-Bulletin, May 18, 1997.

69 Ibid. The State Supreme Court ordered a stay of the Superior Court order in July, after the city appealed the Superior Court decision; the case is now pending.

70 Lynne Wilson, "The public's right of access to police misconduct files," Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report, January - February 1994, vol. 4, no. 7.

71 Wiggins v. Burge (Slip Op. At 6,) quoting Mercy v. County of Suffolk, 93 F.R.D. 520, 522 (E.D.N.Y.)

72 Telephone interviews during the weeks of December 15, 1997 and January 5, 1998.

73 The Indianapolis and Providence police departments failed to respond.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch