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Newspaper wins right to see police disciplinary records

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  1. Freedom of Information
OHIO--The city of Columbus can provide The Columbus Dispatch with police disciplinary records, a divided appeals court in Columbus ruled…

OHIO–The city of Columbus can provide The Columbus Dispatch with police disciplinary records, a divided appeals court in Columbus ruled in mid-August, rejecting efforts of the Fraternal Order of Police to protect its members from public identification.

An agreement between the city and the police union that disciplinary records would be destroyed after three years did not limit the city’s requirement to reproduce records from its electronic data base in order to comply with the Ohio Public Records Law, the court said.

The U.S. Department of Justice in July 1998 accused the Columbus Division of Police of a “pattern and practice” of abusive behavior, including use of excessive force, false arrests and improper searches and seizures.

The newspaper asked the city for police records, including hard paper copies of complaints against police officers, that had previously been destroyed under the disciplinary records retention schedule. The city had retained electronic records dating back to 1990.

In early June the city agreed to provide the records, but the police union sued in state court in Columbus to prevent the release. It said three-year-old information should have been deleted from the databases under the city’s agreement with the union. It also said disclosure of the records would violate the privacy of individually named police officers.

The newspaper sued for the records the same day. In late June the trial court ruled for the newspaper.

On appeal, the union said the city had violated its contract and must now destroy the records rather than give them out. The appeals panel upheld the trial court’s verdict, saying that the city could not violate the open records law in order to adhere to a contract.

A dissenting judge said the union should have been able to intervene so that the court could develop an “intelligent balancing” between the officers’ privacy rights and the right of the public to know. (Ohio ex rel. The Dispatch Printing Co. v. City of Columbus; Media Counsel: John Zeiger, Columbus)