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Police disciplinary records not exempt from disclosure

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         OREGON         Freedom of Information         Nov 5, 1999    

Police disciplinary records not exempt from disclosure

  • Department records of an internal investigation of a captain’s alleged involvement with prostitutes are personnel records, but are not exempt from disclosure due to the public’s interest in learning about police misconduct.

Police department documents of an internal disciplinary investigation are public despite being personnel records, a state appeals court in Salem ruled in late October.

The court said that even though the documents could be considered personnel records, they were not exempt from disclosure because of the strong public interest in learning about police department impropriety.

The documents resulted from an investigation into allegations that an off-duty Portland police captain used an escort service involved in prostitution and that he improperly used his police department office and telephone.

In late 1997, The Oregonian newspaper in Portland requested access to the documents, and the county district attorney ruled that they should be made public. The city challenged the decision in state court but lost.

Before the state Court of Appeals, the city argued that the documents were exempt from disclosure because they were confidential personnel records. Acknowledging that disciplinary records — those involving the completed investigation and discipline of a public employee — were indeed personnel records, the appeals court declined to exempt them from disclosure.

The court cited an exception to the general rule that personnel records are exempt from disclosure, saying the public’s interest in the information may trump the employee’s interest in keeping it secret.

The captain “is a high ranking police officer. The public has a legitimate interest in confirming his integrity and his ability to enforce the law evan handedly,” the court said. “We conclude that the public interest compels disclosure.”

The court also said that even though the investigation reports may contain personal information that usually is exempt from disclosure, the public interest in it again required disclosure. Even if the information were personal, the court said, releasing it was not an unreasonable invasion of privacy considering the allegations and his position in the police department.

(City of Portland v. Anderson; Media Counsel: Charles F. Hinkle, Portland)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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