TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Reviewing citizen complaints should be a police-beat staple

At least since “don’t tase me, Bro” entered the national vocabulary as a T-shirt slogan and late-night punchline, the public has been fascinated by how university police use force in dealing with unruly but unthreatening members of the campus community.

When working the campus police beat, journalists should make an at-least-annual public-records check for citizen complaints alleging unprofessional conduct by police, to see how many complaints are occurring and how they are being resolved.

Public access to police complaint records was spotlighted by a recent state Supreme Court decision, allowing a lower court’s ruling to stand, that the New Mexico sunshine law requires disclosure of citizen complaint files.

In August 2010, the state Court of Appeals decided that the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act does cover records of complaints filed against officers of the state Department of Public Safety. The court rejected the Department’s claims that the complaint files were “privileged” because they contain sensitive personnel information. The court noted that several other state sunshine laws — including Alaska’s and Colorado’s — have also been held to apply to complaints in police officers’ personnel files.

The same standard that applies to a state public safety department, should — at a public university — apply to campus police or public safety officers as well.

A few especially transparent campuses, including San Francisco State University and North Carolina State University, just to name two examples, have started sharing online a summary of citizen complaints, along with their outcome.

As with many government functions that are rarely the subject of routine news coverage, the process by which complaints are handled can itself be a valuable story, alerting the public that a complaint mechanism exists, and also providing an opportunity to compare the effectiveness of your campus’s complaint resolution system with those elsewhere. For instance, do the police investigate misconduct claims internally, or — like the University of California at Berkeley — do they turn complaints over to an outside review board? Is there an “internal affairs” unit tasked with policing the police? A sit-down with the person who runs that unit may be a door-opener to more revealing stories in the future.

An additional tip for gathering broader context: The Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the federal Justice Department, keeps track of citizen-police interactions and reports periodically on the use of force. According to the Bureau’s most recent report, nearly 1 million Americans each year say they were the subject of force, or a threat of force, during a police encounter. This of course in no way indicates by itself that the use of force is excessive or unjustified, but merely provides a starting point for further inquiry.