Barron: Legislature Must Open Police Records


Two Spanish Fork police officers stand watch on 400 S in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 4, 2020. (Photo by Mark Draper | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Morgan Barron, Opinion Writer


The South Jordan Police Department’s use of force record is practically spotless. Since 2018, officers from the department drew their firearm, deployed less-lethal force or physically restrained a suspect in only 0.32% of all incidents they responded to, a significantly lower rate than the national average. Additionally, no lawsuits have been filed against the department for excessive use of force in the last few years. In contrast, municipalities across the country spent over $300 million settling police brutality claims in 2019 alone. One of their officers, however, has a written reprimand in his file. Officer O.J. Visser was cited for violating the department’s use of force policy in 2019. South Jordan repeatedly denied requests for the internal investigation into this officer’s conduct, claiming it is not a public record. Without this information, it is impossible to determine if the department adequately addressed Visser’s actions. To improve department transparency and officer accountability, legislation must be passed clarifying Utah’s open records law.

Shortcomings in Utah’s Existing Records Law

In 1991, Utah’s legislature enacted the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) to increase access to public records and protect personal, confidential information. Under GRAMA, government employees’ disciplinary records are public record as long as the disciplinary review has been completed, their findings have been sustained and the employee can no longer appeal the decision. Case law has further affirmed that police disciplinary files and investigations are public records under GRAMA. However, some departments and municipalities like South Jordan release notices of discipline without providing any information on officers’ conduct. 

While record denials can be appealed to the State Records Committee, this is a time-intensive process. Community members seeking information on their police department’s use of force record may be out of their depth filing a GRAMA report let alone citing precedent to fight for these files. Passing legislation clearly stating that police misconduct records and disciplinary histories are a matter of public record will cement case law as a statute, guaranteeing public access and upholding the intent of GRAMA. 

Public Access is not Dangerous

Pro-police advocates frequently argue that public access to police misconduct information and disciplinary records will jeopardize officer safety. However, there is no evidence supporting these claims. Recently, New York law enforcement unions filed a petition to prevent the publication of disciplinary records, claiming public access to these records would imperil officers. But states with more transparent public record laws have not reported increased attacks on law enforcement. The district court denied the petition, finding that the unions failed to show how these records could harm officers. 

Shielding these records from public view only protects officers who have histories of misconduct and departments that ignore these officers’ behaviors, putting the larger community at risk. Derek Chauvin had more than a dozen misconduct complaints against him before he kneeled on Geroge Floyd’s neck for almost eight minutes. Daniel Pantaleo had been investigated for misconduct seven times in the five years before he killed Eric Garner. Both officers involved in the shooting of Alton Sterling had previously been accused of excessive use of force. The public was only made aware of these officers’ disciplinary records after the victims’ deaths. 

What This Access Would Mean for U Students

Since Lauren McCluskey’s murder, investigations led by The Salt Lake Tribune have uncovered a history of misconduct systemic to the University of Utah Police Department (UUPD). More recently, it was revealed that the officer assigned to McCluskey’s case showed his colleagues explicit pictures of her. Unsurprisingly, student confidence in UUPD has dropped significantly. The U has tried to repair student-police relationships by restructuring the department and hiring new leadership, but without department police transparency and accountability, these efforts will be unsuccessful. Student oversight is key to campus safety and can be gained by clarifying GRAMA to ensure records of police misconduct and discipline are publicly accessible.  

During Utah Legislature’s 2021 General Session, Senator Jani Iwamoto will introduce legislation to clarify Utah’s open records law to ensure records of police misconduct are accessible to the public. Every Utahn should reach out to their representative and senator in the next month to voice support for Iwamoto’s clarifying legislation. Access to police misconduct histories and disciplinary records will improve public safety by promoting community oversight.


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