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Colorado Supreme Court Expands Access To Internal Police Probes

The Colorado Supreme Court courtroom.
Jeffrey Beall

Colorado's Supreme Court has ruled that people requesting copies of completed law enforcement internal investigations under state open records law don't need to ask for a “specific, identifiable incident” to get the documents, The Coloradoan reported.

The court's 5-2 ruling on Monday removes a significant barrier for information seekers under a 2019 law that made completed internal affairs investigations into alleged police misconduct public records.

The Supreme Court upheld a district court ruling against a refusal by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office to provide a criminal defendant with internal investigation records about deputies involved in the defendant’s case. The defendant didn’t request information about a specific incident.

The court’s majority opinion written by Justice William Hood stated that a law enforcement agency cannot deny a police public records request that does not identify a specific incident.

Chief Justice Brian Boatright and Justice Carlos Samour dissented. Samour wrote that the Legislature did not intend the 2019 law “to sanction a criminal-justice-records version of ‘Go Fish.’ Because that kind of guessing game is the inevitable result of the majority’s decision.”

In 2020, a Coloradoan investigation showed that law enforcement agencies refused public records requests because the law required the requestors to refer to specific incidents.

The Coloradoan revealed that an unknown number of reports were inaccessible under the law — frustrating efforts by the public, the media and government watchdogs to learn how police are policing themselves. The law's language allowed police departments to withhold reports because the public didn't know whether they existed in the first place.

For its report, The Coloradoan made public records requests for all completed internal affairs investigation reports filed in January 2020 by Fort Collins Police Services, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office and the Loveland Police Department. All were denied for not including a “specific, identifiable incident," The Coloradoan reported.

A 2021 bill awaiting Gov. Jared Polis’ signature would remove the words “specific, identifiable” from the language of the law in a bid to increase transparency, according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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