Cover for brutal cops in FOI law | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cover for brutal cops in FOI law

Posted By on Wed, Nov 23, 2011 at 8:44 AM

CONTROLS THE SUNSHINE: Will Judge Griffen open cops file?
  • CONTROLS THE SUNSHINE: Will Judge Griffen open cop's file?
Keith Hall, attorney for Chris Erwin, the man beaten repeatedly in the face by a Little Rock cop working security at Ferneau's recently, went to Circuit Court Tuesday to get personnel records of Lt. David Hudson. Hall naturally wants to know if police have had complaints before about Hudson's physical treatment of the citizenry.

The city contends it has provided Hall with all he's entitled to see under the state Freedom of Information Act. Judge Wendell Griffen has ordered production of records Hall has not been allowed to see. He says he'll review them in private and decide whether any more can be released.

According to the Democrat-Gazette, Griffen expressed skepticism that police could withhold information about use of force. Why, he noted, a mere review of a use of force that didn't end in suspension or firing could be off limits to the public.

Precisely.

I have first-hand knowledge of the development of this gaping and dangerous hole in the state Freedom of Information Act. The year was 1987. Bill Clinton was governor. A committee he drafted — headed by a nominal FOI advocate law professor — came up with a new, broad exclusion to the law to protect personnel records. Public employees didn't like the public snooping around in their records. They might demonstrate some of them were unfit for the salaries they were drawing. The result was protection of all personnel records except those that had a bearing on an upheld suspension or firing.

Clinton brought the press together on this proposal in his conference room before it was passed. I raised bloody hell. I said — specifically — that rogue police departments would use this to cover up head-knocking cops. If a chief countenances head-knockers — and never suspends or fires one — there's no way for the public to readily know about a cop prone to violence. The LRPD once had a squad famous for roughing up black people. A record of multiple complaints — also multiple exonerations — says something in such cases, even if superiors are covering up. Now, all that information is unavailable to the public.

I'd never tell Judge Griffen what to do. It would waste my energy and irritate the judge, to borrow a phrase. Sad to say, I don't think the law allows him to release Hudson's record, even if it includes 35 substantiated complaints of physical abuse, so long as none ended in a suspension. We can thank Bill Clinton for that. (And we can also thank John R. Starr, normally an FOI absolutist as Arkansas Democrat managing editor, who unaccountably asked at that conference room session why anybody would ever want to look at a policeman's personnel file.)

May I say, 24 years later, I told you so. Judge Griffen sometimes is guided by larger principles. So, we'll see.

PS — The judge's office says he won't rule on this issue until next week.

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