When a Michigan newspaper asked police officials in East Lansing for reports and video footage related to allegations of police brutality against a black man, they denied the request. East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier refused to release video footage and investigative records tied to a December 2019 incident that left a black man with head injuries and a white police officer on paid leave. Beier said Michigan State Police had asked that the videos not be made public because doing so could interfere with the ongoing investigation.
The decision to withhold information pertaining to possible police misconduct isn’t unusual. Reuters conducted a study of police union contracts across the country. The study found that in many big cities, a majority of contracts require departments to erase disciplinary records. Doing so makes it far more difficult to track and fire officers with multiple abuse allegations. In some cities, even suspensions get erased from an officer’s record within a few years.
These contracts have come under sharp criticism in recent years from non-profit groups and activists who say all information about police misconduct should be made available on publicly-accessible websites. If you believe you were the victim of police misconduct, it’s important to get legal advice from an attorney experienced handling police misconduct cases.
In deciding not to release any video footage of the incident on Dec. 29 2019, Mayor Beier said she relied on advice from attorneys and legal experts. The mayor noted that the reports and video footage would be released when the MSP probe had ended.
What is known is that three officers made a traffic stop on Dec. 29, claiming the vehicle matched the description of a car that had sped away from officers the night before. The driver was a middle-aged black man, and while he was allowed to get insurance paperwork from his truck, the police arrested him after he got out of the car. Officers would later say the driver became “agitated” as they were arresting him, and that the driver had reached into his car as the officers were advancing, which officers thought may have been an attempt to retrieve a weapon. The driver would later say officers used excessive force while arresting him.
In this case, officials declined to release video recordings related to the arrest by claiming it could compromise the investigation into what happened. But in many other cities, getting access to older police misconduct allegations is virtually impossible.
Since police officers are public employees, many departments are unionized, and union contracts have become critical in determining what kind of information the public may retrieve. Many cities require the erasure of disciplinary records over time, which includes information about suspensions, demotions, and disciplinary transfers. Some contracts allow officers accused of misconduct to forfeit sick leave or vacation time rather than serve a suspension. At least 18 cities require an officer’s written consent before the department can publicly release documents involving prior discipline or internal investigations.
Rick Weisman, director of labor services at the National Fraternal Order of Police, defended these contracts. He noted:
“Our job isn’t to keep bad officers in this profession. Our job is to make sure that due process is given to the officers. If the agency’s got a case, make your case.”
Civil rights activists working to raise awareness about police abuse against people of color consider these contracts controversial.
Projects like the Citizens Police Data Project have attracted support from nonprofit groups, journalists, and others since they contain an extensive database of civilian complaints in Chicago. So has CAPstat, a database created by the Cop Accountability Project, which has data on federal civil rights lawsuits against police in New York City.
Michael Sisitzky, the lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said it isn’t fair to allow police officers this privilege and not to others who work for the federal, state, or local government, such as teachers, doctors, and lawyers. He said:
“The records of any other public servant are available to the public. When police officers violate that public trust, we need to know whether or not the police department leadership is taking measures to hold those officers accountable.”
Advocates are pushing to have as much information as possible made available online so that police brutality allegations can’t hide behind the terms of a union contract or the police Code of Silence. They want to be certain that anyone who is the victim of police brutality can successfully bring a civil action lawsuit against the officers who violated the law.
If you’ve been a victim of police misconduct, you have rights that an experienced attorney can help protect. Attorneys at the Michigan Legal Center specialize in protecting clients from police brutality and misconduct. We're here to defend the residents of Michigan with more than 20 years of experience and more than $200 million worth of legal cases.
The attorneys at the Michigan Legal Center are happy to answer any questions and offer advice on the necessary steps to receive compensation after experiencing the consequences of police misconduct. Call 1-800-961-8447 for your free consultation.