Newspaper wins right to view deadly force reports
WISCONSIN–The public and press have a right to examine “Use of Deadly Force Reports” filed whenever a police officer fires his weapon, the state Court of Appeals in Madison ruled in mid-December, affirming a lower court decision. However, the appeals court held that two specific items contained in the reports, supervisors’ opinions and police officers’ home addresses, should be withheld from disclosure.
The appeals court held that while the public and press generally have access to the factual information concerning investigations into police conduct, those portions that are not purely factual — supervisory opinions or recommendations for future action for example — may be withheld in order to maintain the effectiveness of ongoing investigations.
The appeals court reasoned that when individuals accept employment as police officers, they give up certain privacy interests and are subject to greater public scrutiny than private individuals.
Anne Bothwell, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, requested the “Use of Deadly Force Reports” from the Milwaukee police department in September 1994. The police department refused her request, claiming that the reports involve officer personnel records and should be withheld on public policy grounds.
Bothwell repeated her request in October and again in January 1995. The police department denied both requests and Bothwell then sued the police department and the city of Milwaukee asking the court to compel the release of the reports.
At trial in Milwaukee, the defendants argued that releasing the reports would interfere with investigations and violate officers’ reputational and privacy interests. But the trial court ruled that the public has an “overriding concern” in having access to information about police use of deadly force, saying the department cannot “call it personnel records and hide it from the public.” (State ex rel. Journal-Sentinel, Inc. v. City of Milwaukee; Media Counsel: David Lucey, Milwaukee)