A circuit court judge has ruled that the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department broke the law in refusing to make officer conduct complaints available to the public — and must "permanently" stop concealing those records going forward.
Circuit Judge Robert H. Dierker issued a ruling against the department last week
, saying that the police are bound to release "all portions of internal affairs records that are not created solely for the purpose of hiring, firing or promoting an officer," in the summary of the ACLU of the Missouri. He also awarded $5,500 in penalties and fees to the ACLU and its client, plus legal fees.
The civil rights watchdog filed a suit last year on behalf of Curtis Farber, who filed an officer misconduct complaint in March 2013. Farber had been arrested two years prior, and alleged in a subsequent complaint to the department that the officers who arrested him had also assaulted him and threatened to file false drug charges against him.
Internal affairs officers notified Farber in June 2013 that they had received his complaint, but told him they believed there was no cause to launch a criminal investigation of the officer. But according to the ACLU, the department reached that conclusion by reviewing records from Farber's criminal case — not conducting an independent investigation.
“This case reveals that the St. Louis police usually do not investigate allegations of criminal activity when police officers are the accused,” Tony Rothert, Legal Director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement. “While the police department pretends to investigate crimes by police officers like they do other complaints of criminal activity, it instead sweeps most complaints under the internal affairs carpet without ever even considering whether a crime has been committed.”
A spokesman for the police department referred questions to the city counselor, who did not respond to our request for comment late afternoon Friday.
The Sunshine Law ruling comes from what happened after Farber's complaint was closed.
In November 2015, Farber put in a request to get copies of the internal affairs report. He repeated his request in March 2016, but was told that it was a "closed record" — a routine reply from the department when it comes to such requests.
But this week's court decision turns that policy on its head. Such records, Judge Dierker found, must be released to the public.
Beyond that, Dierker took issue with the department's overall disciplinary structure. "[I]t is abundantly clear to this Court that it is high time for the Civil Service Commission to take control of disciplinary procedures of the police department," he wrote. "Section 84.344.8 mandates that the commission do so. The [internal affairs] process described in the record seems contrary to the plain language of the statute, leaving, as it does, exclusive control over discipline in the hands of the Chief of Police."
Added Judge Dierker, bitingly, "[T]his is not the first time this Court has been confronted with the peculiar cosmos of [internal affairs] investigations. ... the Court cannot ignore the Police Department’s persistence in disregarding the Sunshine Law in material respects. True, the Court has not found that the Police Department acted with the purpose of frustrating the Sunshine Law, in the Department’s approach to closing [internal affairs] records, but the Police Department ... knows that such records are not ineluctably closed.
"The Police Department therefore knowingly violated the open records laws by refusing to disclose the open records portions of the [internal affairs] investigatory file to plaintiff."
You can read the whole ruling here
“Law enforcement must be transparent in its actions to earn the trust of the community it serves,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, in a prepared statement. “We hope that officers will begin to hold themselves to standards of the law, and not above them.”