Information Public Officials and Privacy

Although the U.S. Constitution calls for a transparent government, each state handles police misconduct differently. In some, disciplinary matters involving police, including shootings, are considered personnel matters. This allows departments to bypass traditional transparency requirements. Maryland is one such state. In Maryland, police disciplinary records are sealed from public access.

Senate Bill 362 is pending in Maryland. Written by state Senator Joan Carter Conway, SB 362 would force police departments to make such records public. The bill has wide support but is facing stiff opposition from police and union officials. The arguments against open reporting include the belief that permitting public access to police misconduct files would needlessly risk the lives of officers, would limit recruiting efforts, and reduce reporting by fellow officers in misconduct cases.

A Pennsylvania bill with just the opposite intent of the Maryland bill was recently vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf. Pennsylvania is one of the states that currently has partial public access to records. In this state, individual department heads have the autonomy to decide what information to release. House Bill 1538 was intended to restrict police departments from making information related to certain police shootings public; it even criminalized doing so. The information which was to be restricted specifically dealt with shootings of unarmed citizens.

In signing the veto, Gov. Wolf stated, “I cannot sign into law a policy that will enshrine the withholding of information in the public interest. These situations in particular — when law enforcement uses deadly force — demand utmost transparency, otherwise a harmful mistrust will grow between police officers and the communities they protect and serve.”

A study by the CATO Institute in 2010 suggests Gov. Wolf is correct. The study considered whether there was a correlation between transparency by police departments and violence against police. The conclusion was that no clear correlation exists, but noted that the states reporting the most violence against police were those which restricted public access to records.