Faced with growing calls for the public release of police disciplinary records, lawmakers in almost every state have grappled with how to balance disclosing law enforcement misdeeds and protecting officers’ privacy and safety. Fueled by public outrage over the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and other high-profile incidents of police violence, state policymakers have offered a variety of police oversight and transparency bills, Stateline reports. Between May 2020 and April 2023, lawmakers in nearly every state and the District of Columbia introduced almost 500 bills addressing police investigations and discipline, including providing access to disciplinary records, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Sixty-five bills have been enacted. Delaware in June became the most recent to pass transparency legislation, expected to be signed into law this month. California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland and New York also are among the states that have opened police disciplinary records to the public in recent years.
Police records in most states remain largely confidential or have some release restrictions. Even in states with open records laws, advocates seeking records have faced barriers, leading to lawsuits. Advocates for transparency argue that the release of disciplinary records empowers residents, journalists and civil rights activists to identify patterns of misconduct and hold officers accountable. “Police misconduct records should be available to the public in most situations, if not all situations, because these are folks who have a lot of power and authority,” said Lauren Bonds of the National Police Accountability Project, which advocates for more transparency. Some police unions and law enforcement organizations have raised concerns about officer safety and privacy, with names and other identifying information made public. They emphasize that the focus should be on serious misconduct rather than minor infractions like being tardy. They worry about false accusations and want officers to have due process.