DC Councilman Wants to Make Prior Disciplinary Action Against Officers Public

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As governments across the country scramble to enact laws to reform policing, some of the key provisions include greater transparency surrounding officers' actions and their disciplinary history.

The D.C. Council voted Tuesday to expand access to body worn camera footage and strengthen the Office of Police Complaints but did not include a plan to make officer records public.

The District's Metropolitan Police Department routinely rejects Freedom of Information requests for prior complaints and investigations of officers, including any disciplinary action taken, citing officer privacy. Critics say that hurts community trust.

"In our dealings and history with the Metropolitan Police Department, transparency and accountability has been very difficult," said Monica Hopkins, executive director of D.C.'s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU regularly files lawsuits on behalf of clients who've accused MPD officers of excessive force, invasive searches and other abuses of power. She says ACLU attorneys don't usually learn of an officer's history of discipline and complaints until they're deep in a lawsuit, where they can obtain those records through the discovery process.

"They have multiple disciplinary issues on their records, and accountability doesn't exist," Hopkins said. "For the public not to see this information is incredibly, incredibly detrimental."

Roughly two dozen states do release information about officers' prior complaints and/or discipline. Virginia and Maryland are not among them either.

In response to the recent protests, New York state legislators voted Tuesday to repeal their law sealing police disciplinary records. D.C. Councilman Charles Allen, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, which oversees MPD, supports a similar effort here.

"Having that type of disciplinary record be able to be public and be publicly accessible is something we want to do," Allen said. 

Allen said he was unable to include that kind of measure in this week's emergency police reform legislation because release of those additional records would incur an expense. He hopes to make officer discipline public when the Council enacts a permanent version of police reform in the coming months.

"We're only allowed to move emergency legislation that doesn't have a cost associated with it," said Allen.

But he believes the cost of not enacting that policy could be even higher. By keeping closed investigations and prior disciplinary action private, D.C. could be passing on bad officers to other departments. It could also be a problem when other locations also keep those records hidden. 

"How do you also allow the ability for anyone who has a disciplinary action in another jurisdiction for that to be known during a hiring, for example, or to say, no, we're not hiring somebody with a disciplinary record in another jurisdiction," Allen said.

Tuesday's emergency action did include a provision to prohibit MPD from hiring officers who were fired or resigned in lieu of termination from another agency. It also removed police union involvement in the officer disciplinary process when their new contract takes effect.

MPD's latest oversight report, submitted in March, shows 128 pending lawsuits. At least two dealt with release of officers' records. The ACLU says releasing disciplinary action would help the public see how that process works.

"Understanding how these decisions are made and why these decisions are made is fundamental to increasing public trust," Hopkins said. 

News4 reached out to D.C.'s police union and an MPD spokesperson for their thoughts on Allen's plans, but neither has responded.

Reported by Jodie Fleischer and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

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