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Implications on Disclosure of Police Officers’ Misconduct Records

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Intae Choi
July 22, 2022

New York State’s repeal of section 50-a, effectuated in 2020, implies that public officers’ discipline records can be made publicly available. This measure is expected to have a powerful impact on the potential reform of the police. Before the revocation, it had been difficult for the public to identify whether punishments or disciplinary actions on abusive police officers’ misconduct were carried out properly. The New York State’s 50-a has been maintained for quite a long time, since 1976, although there have been a number of demonstrations against police misconduct, including their abusive behaviors.

The police can argue that the disclosure of police officers’ discipline records would worsen police accountability since excessive openness has the potential to deteriorate internal consideration and privacy. As shown by collective behaviors of the police union, external control from the public will cause police officers’ resistance. If sensitive personnel records of police officials are released to the public, the police officers’ privacy may be violated and they would not be able to actively perform their policing activities. In other words, police officers may insist that they will become passive during necessary policing activities, like protecting citizens and preventing crimes, to avoid being disciplined for unintentional accidents when performing their expected duties. In sum, the police may argue that disseminating police officers’ misconduct records worsens the morale of police officers and eventually deteriorates police accountability.

In addition, police may maintain that disclosing police officers’ discipline records might not always lead to increasing trustworthiness from the public. This is because that who is actually requesting those documents from police officers is usually the media, not the general public. Since a number of citizens are likely to regard that they do not have enough time to request the information directly from the police, they depend on the media’s coverage. Thus, the heuristics used to assess the police can be strongly influenced by the media. Meanwhile, the media has a tendency to emphasize negative aspects, implying that, though there are relatively few cases of police officers’ misconduct, the media has the ability to exaggerate those cases to draw more attention from people. In turn, it’s possible that the media’s coverage of misconducting behaviors from certain public officers will make the public believe that misconduct is prevalent in police organizations overall.

However, the degree of government transparency is related to whether the public can freely access government information. Citizens want to know whether governments properly perform their duties meant to represent the public’s demands in a democratic system. Securing higher levels of transparency has become an inevitable measure among countries in order to reduce corruption and establish good governance based on openness. Transparency in the administration refers to the fact that people can access information about governments’ decisions and procedures. Therefore, allowing the public to access police officers’ misconduct records can enhance police transparency. Moreover, since the disclosure of such information is what the public wants, this can be thought to not only increase the political response to the police but also secure the legal aspect of administration which should guarantee the public’s right to know for freedom of information. In addition, since some police officers’ abusive behaviors and racial profiling tactics are frequently criticized by the public, the police want to reduce excessive blame from the public. Thus, police organizations need to enhance the disclosure policy by delivering more accurate information to the public in order to increase police transparency.

With respect to administrative implications about the policy, citizens may face their own set of burdens. The policy might require citizens to learn what the policy is and how to comply with the procedures when they need misconduct records from the police. Besides, the policy also causes the public psychological stress when they have to communicate with unfavorable policy coordinators. Thus, the police should be equipped with new expertise on how to handle the released data and effectively communicate it to citizens. Along with additional financial resources to establish the publicly available database regarding police officers’ misconduct, the police should also adjust organizational structures in order to implement the disclosure policy properly. Furthermore, as citizens may identify specific cases of misconduct by the police, the policy will require more litigation afterwards. In this situation, in caring for their reputation, police institutions should take extra efforts to respond to litigation.

Author: Intae Choi is a doctoral student at the University of Missouri. Email: [email protected]

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