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.
- 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 if nondisclosure is essential to effective law enforcement. But once the investigation is closed or referred to a prosecutor, the file 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. Inform officers of steps they can take to protect private information, such as asking witnesses and victims at the time of taking their statement whether they desire their identifying information not to be disclosed or referencing attached medical records rather than duplicating details in the report narrative.
- 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. This guidance applies to task force and federal partnerships, as well.
- Establish a public records request form or online portal specific to your agency - this can help clarify exactly which records the requestor wants to review (such as Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD), body-worn camera video, or just police reports). For examples, see the Marysville Police Department Request for Records Form and the King County Sheriff's Office Records Request Portal (note that the portal requires requestor to register an account for access). Also, train officers that are approached while on duty to direct records requestors to the records officer or an online records portal.