TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Some arresting journalism about bad guys with badges

German Bosque has been accused of stealing a car, possessing counterfeit money, sneaking into a woman’s house, carrying a loaded gun through airport security and beating up several people. The police in his South Florida hometown know all about Bosque. Because he’s one of them.

In the start of a nine-day series that began Sunday, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune assembled a trail of public records to illustrate how rogue police officers across Florida are able to evade punishment and keep their state certification despite repeated instances of misconduct.

Just a few weeks earlier, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel — using records that it had to pry out of the City of Milwaukee with a lawsuit — documented a remarkably high instance of arrests, most of them for drunk driving and spousal abuse, among Milwaukee police officers who remain on the job.

In the most unsettling case, a veteran Milwaukee officer kept his job after three women, two of them jail inmates, filed sexual misconduct complaints against him. He was finally fired in 2010 — after a 19-year-old woman reported he raped her when he came to her home responding to a 911 emergency call.

On Saturday, the Journal-Sentinel followed up with another records-driven exposé, detailing how black motorists in Milwaukee are seven times more likely to be pulled over, and twice as likely to be searched, as whites.

Each of these important stories was made possible by government records, most of which are widely accessible under state law if journalists are persistent in asking and take the time to do the analysis. Some of the key documents on which these journalists relied came from:

  • The certification records of state law enforcement regulators. To be a “sworn” law enforcement officer requires completing training and exams mandated by state law. The licensing process is administered by state agencies with names like “Peace Officer Standards and Training Board” or “Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.” They have the power to suspend or revoke certification — which makes the licensee ineligible to hold a job that requires arrest powers — if serious misconduct is proven. (A valuable story that journalists in every state should consider is how many complaints the agency receives each year and how many result in punishment.)
  • Internal affairs logs at police agencies. “Internal affairs” units are responsible for policing the police — they investigate official misconduct in the same way that an internal auditor looks for financial misconduct.  While pending investigations can, in most states, probably be withheld in response to an open-records request, the files of closed investigations — and statistics about how many cases are processed and with what outcome — should be obtainable. (As a universal point of open-records practice, it is always a good idea to ask government agencies that deal with the public for records of complaints.)
  • Police officers’ personnel files. State laws on access to personnel files vary greatly. In some, such as Florida, the information is accessible with narrow privacy exceptions, such as Social Security numbers. In other states, personnel documents are categorically excluded from the public-records law. In others, there is a privacy balancing test that requires the agency to make a judgment call as to each request. (In a case decided this past June, Montgomery County v. Shropshire, Maryland’s highest court ruled that complaints of police misconduct investigated by a state inspector general are part of the officer’s confidential personnel file, and thus need not be turned over in response to an open records request.) Don’t ever start by assuming that personnel files are entirely confidential, however; agencies sometimes will voluntarily — or accidentally — release more than the bare minimum of information required by law.

Recent news events have put a bright and at times unflattering spotlight on the professionalism of college campus police — at Penn State, where police couldn’t gather enough evidence to prosecute accused child molester Jerry Sandusky after receiving a complaint about the assistant football coach’s conduct in 1998, and at the University of California-Davis, where the police chief and two officers were suspended while the college investigated the decision to disperse peaceful “Occupy” protesters by pepper-spraying them in the face. The qualifications and conduct of those who run police departments at all levels are a matter of legitimate public inquiry, and in many jurisdictions, the law is on the right side of transparency.