Thursday, February 07, 2008

Police Records

by Joyce Tremel

A lot of people are surprised when they walk into the police department to get a copy of a police report and I tell them they can’t have it.

“What?” they sputter. “I was the one arrested! Why can’t I have my report?”

I calmly and politely explain that police reports are not, contrary to popular opinion, public records, especially when there is an arrest involved. Even the arrestee’s attorney is not privileged to see the report before the preliminary hearing. Sometimes the arresting officer will let the defense attorney view the report at the prelim, but he doesn’t have to do so. If the charges are waived to court, the officer will prepare a pre-trial packet containing all pertinent documents which is then sent to the district attorney’s office. The defense will get a copy of the report and other documents from the DA’s office during this phase (known as discovery).

There are other types of reports I can’t release. Our department has a policy that we won’t release any reports involving domestics or child custody issues. One reason for this is sometimes one party will change the report or cut out things to suit themselves. (The police chief in a neighboring jurisdiction who was going through a nasty divorce, was fired last year for changing one of his own reports.) Or they want to dispute what is in the report (“I never said that!” or “That’s not what happened!”) We require a court order or a subpoena and release the report directly to the attorney.

Come to think about it, there’s not much you CAN have. Let’s say the police showed up at your neighbor’s house at three in the morning and the next day you show up and ask for the report. Nope, sorry. For privacy reasons, we can’t even tell you WHY the police were there. And because of the ridiculous HIPAA regulations, when the police go on an EMS call, they can’t even write what was wrong with the patient on the police report. All they’re permitted to write is that the person was transported to the hospital.

Every once in awhile we’ll have a parent come in after their child has been involved in an incident and ask for a copy of a report. The answer is always no. Juvenile records are sealed—period. Even if there’s no arrest, if the report has a juvenile’s information we aren’t permitted to give it to anyone—not even a parent.

Occasionally we’ll release a redacted report when an insurance company or similar entity needs a copy of a report that we normally wouldn’t give out. When we redact a report we take a black permanent marker and black out any identifying information that the insurance company doesn’t need. It doesn’t look very pretty, but it serves its purpose.

14 comments:

Gina said...

What about accident reports, Joyce? The insurance companies always want to see those.

Annette said...

That's what I was wondering, too, Gina. But, Joyce, isn't that what you were talking about at the end of the blog where parts are blacked out?

Somewhere along the line I seem to recall having seen one of those blacked out reports. Makes me all the more curious to see what they're trying to keep me from seeing.

Interesting post, Joyce!

Joyce said...

Accident reports aren't a problem. When there's a reportable accident (one with injuries or a tow) the officer fills out a state accident report online and prints a copy for our records. Anyone involved in the accident and the insurance company can have a copy--for a fee of course.

For a non-reportable accident, we usually just have a police incident report. They can also get copies of this, as long as there is no arrest involved. Let's say one party gave the officer a hard time, and he was cited for D.C. Then we'd have to redact that section of the report.

ramona said...

Interesting info, Joyce.

I wish this applied to some of my early writing attempts. I can think of one or two I'd like to have expunged from my record.

Nancy said...

What about the press, Joyce? Aren't newspaper reporters granted access to reports?

If not, I've got re-writing to do. But, what else is new?

JennieB said...

This is very interesting, Joyce. And like Nancy, I have rewriting to do...

Lee Lofland said...

Joyce, your department doesn't permit people to see standard incident reports? I know one department in the Midwest that places copies of each shift's incident reports (no juvenile reports and no arrest records although most of the time the incident report stated who'd been arrested and why) in the lobby for access by anyone who cares to see. This keeps the press from bothering the "busy" PR officer.

We allowed the press to come in and view our incident reports almost at will. In fact, we kept a separate log just for them. The purpose of the separate book was to prevent anyone from seeing sensitive information, such as the arrest of someone we were going to use as an informant.

Joyce said...

I refer any media to one of the lieutenants. The only reporter who ever comes to our station is from the Pine Creek Journal. Not exactly big time. Once in awhile someone from the Trib shows up. Never the PG. I guess we're not big enough for them. Usually any reporters just call on the phone and ask the Lt. any questions.

We've had big problems with some of the media in this area. Many times they've blown things way out of proportion. Here's one example. Several years ago the station with the two numbers that are the same, ran a report about a series of rapes in the area. They had women in a panic. The problem was that NONE of these rapes ever happened! We had a woman who was grabbed from behind. She screamed and the man ran off. A similar incident happened around the same time in another township and somehow this all turned into women being viciously raped.

There are only two TV reporters that our department will talk to. They are the only two who report the actual news and not what they want the news to be.

Joyce said...

Lee, in Pennsylvania records are considered private. A person has to prove that they have a right to view them. That's why in PA you often hear of a newspaper filing suit to view what they think should be a public record.

We do release reports to complainants, though. If you complain about your neighbor's dog barking or whatever, you can get a copy of the report since you were the one who filed it. The dog owner would not unless we removed the complainant's info from the report.

Lee Lofland said...

I was speaking of incident reports, not arrest records or case files.

You know the reports I'm talking about. The ones where officers write things like "I exited my vehicle and proceeded to stop the suspects from domesticating." or "It is this officer's opinion that the suspect was suffering from Alps Climber's Disease."

The last one was a head-scratcher. It took me moment to figure out the officer meant Alzheimers.

Joyce said...

No, we don't release those either. Other departments might, but we don't. And if anyone came in and asked to see one, I'd just give them "the look" and they'd slink away. I'm good at that.

Lee Lofland said...

No, not "the" look. I'm leaving now.

Nancy said...

I think I've got Alps Climber's Disease.

Joyce said...

Nancy, me too!