In police work, as in civilian life, people make mistakes. It’s how you handle your mistakes that counts. Own up to them, make tweaks and move on. But when the government tries to cover its mistakes, it is often counterproductive, self-serving and typically dishonest.
For three years I have fought the state in court to obtain access to the disciplinary records of two Alaska State Troopers responsible for violating my Fourth Amendment rights. During this time, the state has spent considerable treasure and time trying to completely bar access to the disciplinary records citing a personnel records exemption and the troopers’ alleged right to privacy in this information. The state is wrong.
First, police work is public work. What one does in public is generally not private. Thus, police cannot reasonably expect privacy in what they do on the job — be it good or bad. Many states’ supreme courts have recognized this, for example in Peer News LLC v. City of Honolulu, 376 P.3d 1, 21-22 (Haw. 2016).
Second, just because you or I may be critical of a trooper because of his or her disciplinary record and that person may feel embarrassed by our criticism, that is not an invasion of the trooper’s privacy.
“In our society, police officers are expected to endure significant burdens caused by citizens’ exercise of their First Amendment rights,” The U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in a ruling in favor of a Boston resident who sued police officers over his arrest for video-recording them arresting another person (Glik v. Cuniffe, 655 F.3d 78, 84 (1st Cir. 2011)). The resident claimed a violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights.
Chief among these First Amendment rights is the right to criticize law enforcement personnel and the right to obtain information about them.
Third, if there is truly private information in the trooper disciplinary records, such as Social Security numbers or medical information, that information can be redacted from the record.
What the state shouldn’t do is demand an unreasonable standard of privacy for law enforcement misconduct when the general public has no privacy when their misconduct is exposed by the state.
This makes it the second time my case has gone before the Alaska Supreme Court in three years. The high court should stop the state’s self-serving, nondisclosure policy for police disciplinary files so that we all have access to this information of paramount importance.
The oral argument by attorneys Susan Orlansky and D. John McKay before the Alaska Supreme Court can be watched at the following link: bit.ly/2ClkCw7.
Kaleb Basey is the appellant in Basey v. State, No. S-17099. He now lives in Lexington, Kentucky. The Alaska Supreme Court heard arguments in the case on Oct. 10 at West Valley High School as part of a special outreach program called Supreme Court LIVE. Read the story at bit.ly/2CzshaB.