Police Corruption: Not Every State Lets Citizens Know
Updated: Feb 27
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Written by: Ismael Barrios
Most people think they are entitled to most information about police officers because the police are there to protect and serve you. Things are different for many states, with many datasets either hidden or not accessible at all; which might make one wonder what they're hiding or why they're hiding it in the first place. Especially when it's likely to be negative, and the fact that someone seems to be trying to hide it.
The District of Columbia and 23 U.S. states, including some more populous ones such as California, New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, keep police disciplinary histories strictly confidential. Not to mention that 15 other states, including populous states like Texas, Illinois and Michigan, have limited the availability of their records. That leaves just 12 states, including the last most populous state, Florida, Georgia and Ohio, the only states whose records are open to the public. Except in those states, baseless complaints and active investigations remain classified. Most people understand that everyone makes mistakes at least once in their life, but as long as you have learned from those mistakes, there is no reason to withhold information.
If hiding this information is for the safety or welfare of officials, how is this supposed to do the same for the public in any way? Looking at the news and the cases that have ended in the arrest of officers, one might question these laws and record-keeping restrictions. According to the 2016-2021 study conducted by security.org, Los Angeles, CA had the highest number of police fatalities with 70 police officers killed. The second highest was Phoenix, Arizona, with 46 people killed, and Chicago, Illinois, with 45 killed by police during those years. Phoenix is one of the few states listed by Columbus with public records, and Phoenix accounts for two of 18 major cities with at least 15 and as many as 70 police killings between those years. The remaining 16 major cities had an average of 27 deaths, while four cities had only about double or triple that number. All cities with limited (if not no) public police records, excluding other cities in those states. Not to mention that the kill counts are for people who may never know the actual counts of wrongdoing happening in these states, which do not include killings. Numerous exceptions and laws appear to prevent the public from viewing all, if not most, of these officials' records. Not to mention the laws in New York, California, and Delaware expressly keeping the personal records of officials private. In some restricted states, the only records the public has access to are those of termination and suspension of severe disciplinary actions. Because everything else is confidential, these exceptions and laws mean that much of the information that some people deem important is kept from the public.
Almost half of the US specifically hides all police records, not including the other 15 states that only release 2 sets of records. It takes a lot to even be considered disciplinary, aside from the instances that resulted in strict disciplinary action (which is the only public record). Officials often side with the justice system in a way that many people living in the United States will never see unless they are on the opposite side. A small number of officers have actually been convicted of the charges against them. Not to mention that allegations and things of this nature are rarely proven, as officials can easily convince a judge or jury that they fear for their lives.
Many of the reasons for keeping records with the public are designed specifically to protect the privacy of officials. But at what point does "privacy" violate the safety or knowledge a U.S. resident should have? Some states don't even have specific statutes or laws, they just deny admissions. It is understandable whether these records contain personal information that is or may be confidential.
But many of these records show what they were like as officers in the field, or what mistakes they made and the consequences of their mistakes. Some may see how officials look at our records and everything about us, including what is considered personal and/or our past. However, in half of the US we don't even see records of wrongdoing, while in other states certain information is kept. Many U.S. residents are routinely judged on their past and records during police interactions or background checks.
What's the difference between that and knowing when an officer has crossed the line, a badge shouldn't put you above anyone else. Laws are meant to protect each other and maintain order in this field, but how can systems and governments better protect the officials who enforce those laws and protect us?
Conditional immunity itself shields many officers and officials from being held accountable for police brutality or government misconduct. These statutes and laws allow any officials truly responsible for their misconduct to hide behind classified records. That might come as a surprise, given the police misconduct and death tolls in some of these states. These recording limitations may be a result of the high number of such events.
Like a child or an animal, a pattern starts when they believe they can get away with something, or have gotten away with said thing. If they're not held accountable, they don't believe they did anything wrong, and if the public doesn't see the truth, they're left in the dark and have to believe whatever information they can get their hands on.