Secrecy In The Name of Officer Safety

Washington state suffered a larger number of police officer deaths in 2009 due to two highly publicized shooting incidents where police officers were randomly targeted by individuals with a grudge. In response to this, the Washington state legislature and governor have been working hard to find ways to show that they care about law enforcement officer safety. One of those efforts is Washington State House Bill 1317.

WA HB1317 proposes to add more restrictions on public access to police records than those that already exist which exclude names and any other identifying information from police misconduct records and internal investigation files. Specifically, the bill also seeks to hide the birth dates of police officers from the public record as well as any photographs of police officers.

Now, this isn’t unusual. In fact, alleged concerns for officer safety are cited any time a state legislature passes laws that restrict public access to police misconduct records in the US… and there are plenty of states out there that restrict access to police misconduct records. Though, in most cases, it’s hard to make any logical connection between the supposed threat these laws hope to address and what these laws as this law demonstrates since the incidents cited as the impetus for this bill would not have been prevented by keeping records secret.

So… what about all those other laws that purportedly seek to protect officer safety at the expense of governmental transparency and police accountability? Do these laws that effectively hide police misconduct from the public and make it harder to hold police officers accountable really protect law enforcement officers from harm?

Well, one way to get an idea of just how effective keeping police misconduct a secret is at protecting police from harm would be to compare the police fatality rates for each state to the how laws for those states affect how transparent each state is about police misconduct… as I’ve done in the map below by comparing officer fatality data from 2009 to the list of police misconduct transparency laws I compiled earlier this week:

2009PTvPFSo, as we can see above, there really isn’t a discernible correlation between police fatality rates and the level of police transparency. In fact, some states with full transparency have no fatalities while the others have moderate rates for the year and none of the unrestricted access states are among the worst for police fatalities.

Indeed, the states with the highest police fatality rates in 2009 all have at least partial restrictions on public access to police misconduct information, two of the worst give each department full discretion on what they can withhold from the public, and another two do not permit any access to police disciplinary data whatsoever.

Texas, with the highest number of police fatalities, only permits partial access to disciplinary records if complaints are ruled as valid after an internal investigation into a complaint.

Florida, with the second-highest number of police fatalities, only allows access to internal investigation records once the investigation has been completed.

California, with the third-highest number of fatalities, has a Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights that keep police disciplinary records sealed from public records requests.

It’s also noteworthy that none of the police fatalities in 2009 were the result of a targeted attack on the officer by another person over a publicly disclosed incident of police misconduct .

So, if laws that prevent the public from seeing information about police misconduct and disciplinary records don’t actually protect police officers from harm, as demonstrated above… Why do more and more states keep passing laws that prevent the public from seeing what happens in their own police departments?

The actual reasoning behind laws that restrict public access to police misconduct information are more likely to do with a combination of political positioning and financial considerations. Powerful police unions have a vested self-interest in seeing police misconduct records kept secret since part of their reason for existence is to defend their members from criminal and civil penalties stemming from misconduct complaints. This is, after all, why officers pay dues to the union.

Also, local governments and state governments have their own vested self-interest in seeing misconduct records kept secret, not only because of public perception that ties reports of police corruption to the governmental officials currently in charge, but also because keeping misconduct a secret makes it much more difficult to win lawsuits against police departments that foster misbehaving officers. After all, you can’t prove that police departments are to blame for misconduct due to lax discipline if you can’t see the disciplinary records.

So, ultimately, it’s pretty clear that officer safety has little to do with the real reasons why so many states keep police misconduct a secret… and the real reason for Washington’s latest proposed law that further restricts access to information about those who are supposed to protect and serve the people, not protect themselves by hiding misdeeds from the people.