Q&A: Access to police complaint


From the Tribune-Star (Terre Haute):

Q: I received a response to our Access to Public Records Act request made to West Terre Haute officials regarding the termination of a police officer. The response seems to be an attempt to suppress the original complaint against the officer and internal emails involved in the incident.

A little back history: The officer who was fired has been accused of an off-duty prank in which he reportedly mooned fellow officers who were on duty at the time. Details of the incident may be what is described in the reports that are subject to the motion to keep confidential the information filed with the court.

Does this motion violates the state’s records access law, and should those documents be released?

A: An attorney can always request that documents be kept confidential by the court. The court may grant the request or deny it.
Under Administrative Rule 9, someone could ask the court to make the records available, even if the judge initially grants the confidentiality request.

If the complaint and other documents go to the basis for the city’s termination of the officer, they should be part of the officer’s personnel file.

I would argue that an Access to Public Records Act request to the city for the documents should be made available under IC 5-14-3-4(b)(8)(C).

That part of Access to Public Records Act says personnel files may be kept confidential at the discretion of the public agency with some exceptions.

Exception (C) is for information that is “the factual basis for a disciplinary action in which final action has been taken and that resulted in the employee being suspended, demoted, or discharged.”

I would argue the initial complaint would fall under (C). If the other correspondence supported the termination action, it also should be made available.

I see your options as either making an Access to Public Records Act request to West Terre Haute officials for the information in the fired officer’s personnel file or asking the court to open the documents for public inspection and copying under Administrative Rule 9(G)(7)(a)(ii)(a).

The judge hopefully would find that the records should not have been made confidential. The argument the newspaper would make is that those wouldn’t be confidential under the Access to Public Records Act, so the court shouldn’t make them confidential.

Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.