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Two news outlets sue for access to Colorado police training database

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  1. Freedom of Information
This is the first lawsuit filed by RCFP attorneys as part of the Local Legal Initiative in Colorado.
State name card for Colorado Local Legal Initiative

Update: After ruling in August 2021 that the POST Board is a criminal justice agency, Denver District Court Judge J. Eric Elliff sided with the agency on Oct. 5, 2021. The judge held that the POST Board did not abuse its discretion under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act when it denied the journalists’ requests for records.

On behalf of a Colorado Springs newspaper and Chicago-based nonprofit newsroom, Reporters Committee attorneys are suing the director of the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training Board over his refusal to provide access to the agency’s police certification database.

The lawsuit is the first to be filed as part of the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative in Colorado, which launched last September.

Filed on May 14 in the Denver County District Court, the complaint involves Colorado Open Records Act requests submitted to the POST Board by The Gazette and The Invisible Institute — news organizations that have reported extensively on police misconduct, often using government data to bolster their reporting. In 2019 and 2020, the two newsrooms filed separate requests seeking similar POST Board data regarding the certification, training and personnel changes of law enforcement officers in Colorado, information that at least 23 states have disclosed in response to other records requests filed by The Invisible Institute.

The POST Board used the same argument to reject all three requests — two from Gazette reporter Christopher Osher and one from The Invisible Institute: It claimed that, as a “criminal justice agency” governed by the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, the Board is not required to release the requested data to the public.

Reporters Committee attorneys argue in the lawsuit that the records requests were unlawfully denied because the POST Board database is governed by the state’s Open Records Act, not the Criminal Justice Records Act. The lawsuit states that the POST Board does not perform “any activity directly relating to the detection or investigation of crime” and therefore does not meet the Criminal Justice Records Act’s qualifying definition of a “criminal justice agency.”

The suit urges the Denver County District Court to declare that the POST Board is not a criminal justice agency and require it to provide access to the requested database in a searchable and sortable format, at no cost — as is required under the Open Records Act.

“Public agencies cannot be allowed to withhold public records by claiming, incorrectly, that the Public Records Act’s requirements do not apply to them,” said Rachael Johnson, the Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative staff attorney in Colorado, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the two news organizations. “Local communities should better understand how police officers are certified, decertified and trained. We hope the court agrees with our clients that the database they requested is governed by the Colorado Open Records Act and must be released to the public.”

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