Over the last six months, the WCPO I-team has collected records from 40 different police departments and reviewed thousands of disciplinary cases involving officers. Our motives are simple: We want to make sure the people who protect us and enforce our laws are worthy of the high level of trust the public gives them. Read more about this project and why we are doing it here.
CINCINNATI - You have a right to know. They have a right to privacy. Between those two truths is more than a little gray area.
But that didn’t keep local police departments from complying with state public records laws when WCPO sought files pertaining to police discipline.
Forty local departments delivered thousands of paper records, video and audio files documenting incidents in which officers allegedly drove drunk, slept on the job, used excessive force or engaged in improper sexual behavior. All of the records are public to anyone who asks for them, not just members of the media.
“Yes, the average Joe can and does actually have the same access you do for records,” said Lt. Stephen Saunders, a public information officer for the Cincinnati Police Department.
Warren County has processed more than 2,300 requests for public records so far this year, about 80 percent of them for background checks or incident reports. Only 10 involved requests for personnel files, while six requested cruiser-cam video.
“The Ohio public records act is intended to be very liberal on the side of disclosure,” said Thomas Hodson, professor of communications at Ohio University. “The problem becomes, if the office that holds the records does not provide them, to take legal action to force the issue is sometimes a costly proposition. It puts the burden on the citizen to do something to get them.”
Hodson has worked as a defense lawyer, judge and journalist. He said Ohio, once a vanguard state for open access to public records, has been carving out new exceptions to its “liberal framework" for years. Several exemptions were added to Ohio records law since 2015, while media outlets engaged in court fights with law enforcement over what records can be withheld because of ongoing investigations and trial preparation.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ohio became one of many states to beef up privacy protections for those in law enforcement. But it didn’t follow other states that declared police personnel records off limits.
“You don’t have to give out addresses or family information, things that could be used by people to trace down that officer for ill intent,” he said. “Those things can be redacted, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the record is excluded.”
Kentucky's Open Records Act allows police agencies to refuse requests "if disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" or if "agencies involved in administrative adjudication" would be harmed "by their premature release."
These exemptions have been used for decades by police agencies to deny the release of investigative records, including internal affairs reports after completed investigations. Boone County's Sheriff cited these exemptions in rejecting portions of WCPO's record requests in July.
But a 2013 Kentucky Supreme Court ruling and three recent cases involving the release of police records in Louisville and Frankfort has open records advocates hoping that change is afoot.
The rulings signal "once and for all we hope the end of this strained attempt to shield investigative records from public inspection," wrote Amye Bensenhaver, in a Nov. 7 blog post for the Bluegrass Institute.
Beyond the legal arguments, Hodson said there might be an intangible factor that keeps gatekeepers from releasing files.
“All institutions feel like they want to protect people within those institutions," he said. "With police officers that’s certainly the case. So, sometimes they’re difficult to get.”
Difficult but not impossible.
The I-Team used persistence and persuasion to get the records needed for a months-long investigation that explores how local departments police their own, ending up with approximately 27,000 pages from personnel files, internal affairs reports, job applications and memos documenting disciplinary actions. We also obtained more than 21 hours of video from body cameras and cruiser cams, along with dozens of photographs and more than three dozen audio files of witness interviews from internal investigations.
“I tried to figure out what information would be kept by police departments and how they would keep a record of it,” said I-Team Chief Investigative Reporter Craig Cheatham. “Then, I asked for the records that I believed would reveal as much as possible about what happened and how the department responded to it.”
Hodson said he’s had success with past record requests by being as specific as possible and visiting the department to get to know its process for processing record requests.
“Many of them request it in writing,” he said. “It’s not a requirement of the statute, but I think you get better results.”
Cincinnati maintains an online records request system, but it will also take requests by phone, at 513-352-3559, or in person at 801 Linn Street in Queensgate.
Warren County has more than 30 employees who work on various kinds of record requests, but the amount of time each request takes can vary widely based on the size of the record and how much processing is required to fill it.
“It may take anywhere from a few minutes to several months,” said Paul Sarver, office manager with the Warren County Sheriff’s Office. “The requests we receive range from just a few pages with minimal redactions to several thousand pages where each page must be screened for potential redactions.”
Finally, even though it isn’t required by Ohio law, most departments will ask for your name and contact information when you submit a records request. You should know that your request is itself a public record, same as the body cam video that Cincinnati Police Officer Eric Franz recorded while Cheatham interviewed Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac. Cheatham requested the video when he realized Franz was recording.