The public has a right to know how police police themselves. That is the crux of an issue now being deliberated by the West Virginia Supreme Court.
The issue surfaced when the Charleston Gazette filed a lawsuit because it was denied information about abuse and misconduct on the part of state police officers. The records were denied by the police agency’s Professional Standards division, which handles internal investigations.
On Tuesday, the state’s high court heard arguments in the case and said it would issue a ruling later this year. Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman said Tuesday she found it “troubling” the information isn’t released, especially after investigations are concluded. “If the public doesn’t have the right to know anything about any of these complaints — that just seems like it’s not in the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act,” Workman said.
Virginia Lanham, attorney for the State Police, disagreed, arguing that opening the files would hurt the scope of the investigation. Sean McGinley, attorney for the Gazette, said there should be no difference between troopers, who have the files closed, and doctors and lawyers who have complaints against them open for the public to see.
Among other concerns raised during Tuesday’s court arguments were those dealing with an officer’s medial or psychiatric issues and whether complaints against officers could be used to “harm or embarrass” officers.
Medical records can always be redacted by the court. As for the embarrassment, that is a price that has to be paid if a police officer is found guilty of violating the public’s trust.
Keeping records secret only undermines the public’s confidence in law enforcement agencies.
Only by following an open and transparent policy can that public trust be maintained.