State court upholds closure of hearings in which police officers were disciplined
OHIO — Closing the disciplinary hearings of two police officers who failed to get immediate medical attention for arrested man was proper, a state appellate court in Cleveland ruled in late May.
The man, Michael Pipkins, died in police custody in December 1992. The officers were suspended without pay after a May 1993 hearing that excluded the administrator of the dead man’s estate. The hearing followed a ruling by the state trial court in Cleveland that the hearing could be closed.
The appeals court ruled that neither the Cleveland City Charter, Ohio’s Sunshine Act nor the First Amendment required that the administrative hearing be opened to the public.
Because the city charter does not specifically provide for public access to safety department hearings, the appellate court ruled that the meeting was presumed closed.
The court held that Ohio’s Sunshine Act does not apply to the actions of individuals, such as the Cleveland safety director who alone disciplined the two officers. Although the actions of a board, commission or committee are subject to the statute, the court said that a single person does not constitute a public body.
The court ruled that the First Amendment right to know does not apply to police disciplinary hearings because they have not historically been open to the public. The court noted that opening the disciplinary meeting was less important than maintaining the confidentiality of a person’s employment status hearing. (Smith v. City of Cleveland; Executor’s Counsel: John Martin, Cleveland)