By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director
Following up on a 2018 study showing that Colorado law enforcement departments regularly reject requests for internal affairs files, a University of Denver law student found that agencies in several other states have no problem disclosing such records to the public.
“In my research and communications with police departments, requesting internal affairs files seemed almost as routine as requesting a traffic accident report, irrespective of prior criminal proceedings or press coverage,” wrote Brittany Garza, a second-year student at DU’s Sturm College of Law, in a new report.
Garza conducted the research at the request of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition in anticipation of proposed legislation introduced this week that would open records on completed police internal affairs investigations. A weakened version of a similar bill made it through the Colorado House last session but died in a Senate committee.
The 2018 proposal followed “Access Denied,” a DU Law study which concluded that Coloradans are left “largely in the dark with regard to allegations and investigations of police misconduct” because most law enforcement agencies determine that disclosure of internal affairs files would be “contrary to the public interest.” The study highlighted high-profile cases, some involving large monetary settlements, in which internal affairs files were not released.
For the latest report, Garza sought to gauge how police departments in other states handle public records requests for internal affairs files. She directed her requests to departments in 14 states with statutory, constitutional or court-derived schemes that provide for the public disclosure of records once an investigation is complete.
Georgia, for instance, generally requires law enforcement agencies to release employee disciplinary records once an investigation has been closed for 10 days. In response to her request, the Atlanta police department provided Garza with a complete internal affairs file that included interoffice memos and emails, transcripts of interviews, documents related to civil litigation, investigation notes and recommendations.
Garza found that Seattle’s police department “had the most transparent policies with respect to open records and their release.” The department’s Office of Police Accountability posts closed-case summaries on a website; Garza used the summaries to request and obtain additional reports.
The law student also found that fees associated with her records requests generally “were not unreasonable” and did not pose significant barriers to access.
The police chiefs and police union officials who opposed last year’s Colorado legislation, House Bill 18-1404, argued that officers and witnesses would be less inclined to cooperate with internal affairs investigations if they knew that records about a case would be made public eventually.
But such concerns haven’t hindered disclosure in other states, where communities “benefit from increased government and public official transparency and accountability,” Garza wrote.
“Removing bricks from the ‘blue wall’ of secrecy by releasing internal affairs files in these states has not caused social unrest or mistrust between police officials and the public, nor does it seem to have created fear in officers,” her report concludes.
The Colorado bill introduced this week is sponsored by Rep. James Coleman, the Denver Democrat who sponsored last year’s measure. House Bill 19-1119 would open files that examine a law enforcement officer’s in-uniform or on-duty performance once an internal affairs investigation is complete.
A requester would have access to records about a “specific, identifiable incident of alleged misconduct involving a member of the public,” although records custodians could first provide summaries. Any private information, such as Social Security numbers or an officer’s home address, would be redacted and police would have discretion to also black out information they believe would compromise the safety of officers, witnesses or informants.
Download Brittany Garza’s report, “Dismantling the ‘Blue Wall’ of Secrecy: Experience with Public Access to Completed Police Internal Affairs Investigation Files in Other States.”
Follow the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition on Twitter @CoFOIC. Like CFOIC’s Facebook page. Visit CFOIC’s legislature page to track bills in the General Assembly that could affect the flow or availability of information in Colorado.