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Tips for Managing Law Enforcement Records


This page provides practice tips to help police and sheriff departments in Washington State manage their records and respond to public records requests.

It is part of MRSC's Law Enforcement Records Tool Kit, created in partnership with the State Auditor's Center for Government Innovation.

  • Think of law enforcement records as being fluid, rather than static. The applicability of certain exemptions and prohibitions will change over time depending on the status of the case. For instance, an open investigative file is categorically exempt from disclosure in its entirety. But once the investigation is closed or referred to a prosecutor, it is no longer categorically exempt, although certain documents or information within those files may still be exempt. Likewise, the copying or dissemination of nonconviction data on a rap sheet is prohibited, but if the individual is convicted of a crime, the information related to that conviction is subject to disclosure.
  • Adopt a records management system that allows detectives to update the status of a case - for example, the status could be active, inactive, canceled, cleared by arrest, or referred to prosecutor. This will allow the records manager to readily see whether a case is still open and, consequently, whether the categorical exemption for open investigations in RCW 42.56.240(1) may apply.
  • When a public records request is received, the records manager should contact the detective and provide a copy of the request. The records manager should ask the detective questions such as:
    • What is the status of the case?
    • Has the suspect been arrested and, if so, has a probable cause statement been submitted to the prosecutor?
    • If the investigation is closed, are there any issues in the records that may impact disclosure? (For example: multiple suspects where some investigations are ongoing; requests from victims or witnesses to withhold their identities; interagency investigations that are ongoing; intelligence information in the records; the possibility of destruction of evidence or flight of suspects if certain information is disclosed; or juveniles involved as suspects or witnesses.)
  • If appropriate, consider releasing investigative files in installments. This way, sensitive information may no longer be sensitive because the case has been proceeding while the installments are produced.
  • If your agency obtains records from another police or sheriff department, these are now considered to be your agency's records, too. You must disclose these records if requested, although the same exemptions and prohibitions still apply. Your agency should identify what information it believes is exempt and contact the original agency for their input on any redactions.
  • Establish a public records request form specific to your agency - this can help clarify exactly which records the requestor wants to review. (See the Bellevue Police Department's Public Records Request Form for an example.)

Last Modified: May 05, 2021