A second St. Louis judge has ruled that police officers have no right to expect that statements they make during internal investigations won’t be released to the public.
Wednesday's ruling from judge Robert Dierker was the latest in a long-running case involving St. Louis Metropolitan Police officers who used tickets they had seized from scalpers to attend the 2006 World Series. No one was ever criminally charged in the case, but 16 individuals were disciplined internally.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri sued to access the records the police department created during their internal investigation. A previous judge had ordered their release, but declined to enforce that ruling after a second judge in a separate case reached a different conclusion.
Dierker sided strongly with the ACLU in ordering the records to be made public.
"The Court observes that the officers involved in these consolidated cases are not bad police officers, but several of them succumbed to the temptation (to which none of us in the public service is immune) to use an incident of their office for private purposes. That their misfeasance must become public is an unfortunate but necessary consequence of the power they were and are entrusted with, a power that, on a daily basis, has more direct impact on individual citizens than does the power of the Court--and for that reason, they must be held to a higher standard than other citizens."
Tony Rothert, the legal director of the ACLU, applauded Dierker's reasoning.
"That transparency is necessary to build the trust between the people and the government, but especially between the people and police, who we trust to investigate us and who we trust to investigate themselves," he said.
Criminal versus internal punishment
The records sought by the ACLU include what are known as Garitty statements, or statements that officers are compelled to make under threat of losing their jobs. Anything an officer says in those statements cannot be used in criminal cases.
"Records that are created solely for the purpose of hiring, firing and discipline can be closed records," said Neil Bruntrager, an attorney for the police officers. "Our argument has been all along that a Garrity statement is a record that is created solely for the purpose of discipline," and therefore not subject to the Sunshine Law.
Removing that protection, he said, will make it much harder for police departments to conduct internal investigations.
"Now I'm not sure they can compel a statement," Bruntrager said. "You're going to have officers who are going to say, look, I'm taking the 5th, I'm not going to talk to you about anything that involves an internal investigation."
The officers in question had never objected to the release of the materials from the criminal investigation. But the ACLU's Rothert says that file was incomplete.
"The police officers were the witnesses and suspects of the alleged crime," he said. "So there wasn't much to the criminal investigation once you subtract all the interviews with the witnesses and the suspects. It didn't tell us much about what happened and it also didn't answers whether or not there was criminal misconduct and if so, why there weren't any charges."
Most of the records will not have to be made public until the appeals process is complete, though Dierker did rule that six officers whose names had not been previously released - Michael Deeba, Daniel Disterhaupt, Philip Edmond, Michael Ehnes, Edward Kuntz, and Joseph Spiess - waived the right to remain anonymous by failing to show up in court. Any records pertaining to them will be released immediately.
Bruntrager said his clients had not made any decision about further legal proceedings.
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