For years, Colorado law enforcement agencies have routinely ignored or denied requests for internal investigations records involving alleged officer misconduct.
Mesa County is no exception. Back in 2014, then-Sheriff Rebecca Spiess denied the Sentinel's request for access to internal affairs records of two candidates for county sheriff who had worked or were working in the department.
Spiess cited the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, which had allowed records to be withheld if they were determined to be "contrary to the public interest."
A new law signed by Gov. Jared Polis last week removes that discretion, placing the conclusions of internal affairs investigations squarely among government records the public has a right to see.
We say bravo. For too long, records requesters vainly cited court rulings and the Colorado Supreme Court's observations about the presumption of openness. But sheriffs and police chiefs could always say there was no public interest in the records, turning every request into a cost-benefit analysis of a legal challenge.
As the Associated Press reported, in Colorado, only Denver routinely releases, on request, details of internal probes, according to the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, which pushed for the change, along with the Colorado Press Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, Common Cause of Colorado and the Independence Institute. Now the rest of the state will do what Denver does.
The law applies only to the actions of officers on duty. Records of internal affairs investigations will be redacted to protect witnesses, victims and others who aren't the subject of the investigation.
No longer will investigations that have absolved officers in misconduct complaints be kept secret — even, as the AP reported, in cases where municipalities have paid monetary settlements to affected citizens.
The citizens who pay for public safety will have access to information on the behavior of on-duty officers who fall under scrutiny, including when complaints have no merit. This extra level of transparency should help foster trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.
Open access to internal affairs files also enhances the effectiveness of internal affairs investigations, a Denver district judge wrote in a ruling concerning records relating to the Denver Police Department's "Spy Files" controversy.
"Knowing they will be scrutinized makes investigators do a better job and makes them and the department more accountable to the public," District Judge Catherine Lemon wrote.
We agree. Internal affairs secrecy has made it too easy for agencies to tell the public they handled things appropriately. Now they'll have to show it.