JEFFERSON CITY — Some lawmakers are proposing to close portions of law enforcement internal affairs files dealing with violations of department procedures.
The Missouri Supreme Court has held that complaints accusing police officers of criminal violations currently are open records, as are any related internal investigations.
A House bill would let police departments close files in which an officer is found to have violated departmental policy but committed no criminal act, or when no violation is found. The proposal, by Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, specifies that a file showing that an officer committed a crime would remain open.
Proponents told a House committee on Wednesday that the legislation would protect wrongly accused police officers. Lipke used the analogy of someone leveling an accusation at an elected county sheriff for political purposes.
"I think (current law) can be abused, and I think we should look at it," Lipke said, adding that he hopes to pass something that isn't too controversial. "It's good to have a dialogue about that and see if there's something that can protect those that are truly innocent."
Critics countered that closing some internal affairs records could protect bad police officers from public scrutiny.
"The changes could, in some situations, shield bad cops," John Coffman, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the committee.
Lipke said he sees both sides of the issue, acknowledging that departments could be tempted to keep embarrassing matters private. For example, he said, a police department might classify an officer's violation of its excessive-force policy as "procedural" so that the file could be closed.
An October report by The Kansas City Star analyzed three years' worth of Kansas City Police Department internal affairs files — 50 in all, provided by the department.
The Star reported that 4 percent of cases referred to the department's internal affairs division during the three years resulted in judgment against the officer. Law enforcement experts say the national average is about 10 percent.
Sheldon Lineback, director of the Missouri Police Chiefs' Association, testified that the current process opens up many minor offenses, including uniform violations, that could be used for character attack. He also said allowing the public to view ongoing investigative files could chill potential witnesses.
"There's a lot of facts and a lot of investigations that need to be done before it gets released," Lineback said.
He said his association would be willing to compromise on something such as releasing a summary of the investigation.
Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said the debate reminded her of last year's controversy at the St. Louis Police Department where officers used impounded cars for personal business. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch uncovered the scandal, but Nasheed said the department might have concealed it under the proposed records change.
"It really does an injustice to open records," she said.
The records provision is part of a larger crime bill that increases penalties for some drug offenses, gives more rights to victims and creates the crime of securities fraud against the elderly.