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EDITORIAL: Transparency demands that police disciplinary records should be opened up

YORK DISPATCH EDITORIAL BOARD
  • Police disciplinary records are largely kept secret in the United States.
  • That deprives the public of information that could root out problem officers.
  • The majority of our officers have zero or very few complaints against them.
  • It’s the few bad applies who cause most of the problems on the police force.
FILE - In this June 7, 2020, file photo, protesters participate in a Black Lives Matter rally on Mount Washington overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, to protest the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. In recent years, there have been dozens of examples of officers who had numerous complaints against them of excessive force, harassment or other misconduct before they were accused of killing someone on duty. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

When you accept the job as a police officer, you accept the fact that you are a public employee working for the taxpayer.

Like any public employee, you are subject to public scrutiny.

You also must answer to the taxpayers.

Police disciplinary records are largely kept secret in US

That’s why a recent report from The Associated Press is alarming, to say the least.

The AP reported that police disciplinary records are largely kept secret in the United States.

According to the AP, Officer Derek Chauvin had more than a dozen misconduct complaints against him before he put his knee on George Floyd's neck. Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City officer who seized Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold, had eight. Ryan Pownall, a Philadelphia officer facing murder charges in the shooting of David Jones, had 15 over five years.

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Those incidents all had one tragic common denominator — the public didn't know about any of the officers’ disturbing records until the victims' deaths.

That is simply unacceptable.

The AP said that citizen complaints against police in the U.S. are largely kept secret, either under the law or by union contract. It’s a practice that some criminal justice experts say deprives the public of information that could be used to root out problem officers before it's too late.

Those experts are right.

Transparency demands that we know about officers with checkered records.

Most officers doing things the right way: The AP report included statistics that show that the majority of our police officers have zero or very few complaints registered against them. That’s not surprising. The majority of the men and women on the police force are good cops trying to do a good job.

For example, the AP reported that around 40% of current New York City officers have never received a civilian complaint, while 32% have one or two. One other officer, by contrast, has 52 complaints.

Do you think that might be a problem officer?

It’s the few bad applies who cause most of the problems on the police force. We should not allow antiquated laws or overzealous police unions to protect them.

Police unions argue that the overwhelming majority of complaints are deemed unsubstantiated after internal investigations. That argument, however, carries little weight with the activists who say — with more than a little justification — that police departments often protect their own.

Out of about 5,000 complaints brought against New York City officers last year, 24% were substantiated. That’s not a majority, but it is a relatively high number.

Chris Dunn, the legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, also correctly rejected the notion, advanced largely by Republicans, that police disciplinary records should be kept private like medical information. Police advocates argue that withholding allegations is necessary to protect officers' confidentiality and keep them safe from "cop haters."

“They have no privacy interest in acts of misconduct, in the use of force or the killing of civilians," he said. "When a police officer walks out the door in uniform, they’re a public official, and all of their conduct should be subject to public scrutiny.”

Dunn has hit the nail on the head. The police officers have signed up for duty on the public payroll.

The taxpayers, who fund that payroll, have the right to know if the men and women hired to protect them have any skeletons in their closets.

Pennsylvania lawmakers this week advanced two police oversight reform bills, including one that would create a confidential misconduct database for officer background checks.

While this is certainly a move in the right direction, it falls well short of what's needed. In New York, for instance, lawmakers recently approved legislation making officers' disciplinary files a matter of public record, ending a decades-old exemption. New Jersey followed suit Monday, when its attorney general ordered all departments disclose to the public cops who have committed serious offenses. 

The citizens of Pennsylvania should demand lawmakers make those misconduct records available to the public.