When Colorado cops police themselves, the public can be left in the dark

The Colorado Independent: Imagine you’re arrested by a Colorado police officer. During the arrest, the officer uses such physical force as to injure you. You file a complaint or hire an attorney, or perhaps the American Civil Liberties Union files a lawsuit on your behalf, or the police decide to investigate themselves.

This prompts an internal investigation within that officer’s department.

Months or a year go by before the police determine whether the officer in your case indeed used excessive force. If the officer is found to have acted in accordance with protocol, the department moves on. If the investigation shows your claims of wrongdoing are legitimate, you may settle, out of court, for tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money, maybe more.

When it’s all over, you file a records request to read documents related to the investigation. You do this — and perhaps a journalist or lawyer does, too — because you’re curious to see how the police policed themselves in your case.

Recent research shows that your records request is likely to be rejected or ignored. A University of Denver study that examined statewide internal investigations records from 2015 and 2016 found that about 60 percent of records requests resulted in denials or non-responses.

“After requesting 61 particular internal affairs files from seventeen agencies across the state,” that study’s authors wrote, “nearly all agencies were unwilling to release a complete file, regardless of the situation or outcome.”

The ACLU, media organizations and police watchdogs in the state say the Denver Police Department is the only Colorado law enforcement agency that consistently releases comprehensive information following internal investigations. But even in Denver, that practice is only a couple years old.

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