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Uncovering Hidden Misconduct: A Guide to Data Sources for Investigating Police Misconduct

Delving into allegations of police misconduct or scrutinizing the credibility of police witnesses requires navigating a complex web of information. From official reports to public records and civilian footage, the landscape of data sources is vast and multifaceted. In this article, we list potential avenues available for a thorough investigation into law enforcement. Keep in mind, the availability and accessibility of these sources may vary significantly by agency and jurisdiction.

“Official" Law Enforcement Data

The availability of these data sources largely depends on state laws and whether or not they are considered “personnel records.”  If not, you may be able to access through public records requests under the Freedom of Information Law or through disclosures/subpoenas during a court case.  

  • Law Enforcement Agency Internal Affairs Department - Many Law enforcement agencies have an internal affairs department which investigates misconduct and corruption internally on the police force. There also might be another city department that investigates misconduct across all city agencies. 

  • Civilian Review Boards & Oversight Agencies - In many cities across the US, review boards, watchdog groups, or oversight agencies have been established to investigate complaints of police misconduct. The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) has a list of police oversight agencies by jurisdiction on their website.

  • Internal Agency Forms - In some agencies, officers may have to document when they engage in certain kinds of activity, such as a stop and frisk or use of force. It might be helpful to review the department’s patrol guide to see what types of forms might be available. 

  • District Attorneys’ Brady Lists & Null Prosecutions - District attorneys may keep lists of officers they know have credibility issues or substantial impeachment material. These are sometimes referred to as brady lists. They also might keep data on declined prosecutions, cases where evidence was suppressed, or an officer was found incredible.

  • Decertification Data – Many states have Police Officer Standards & Training (POST) Commissions that are responsible for licensing and decertifying officers. They should maintain lists of all officers that have been decertified and some also track other misconduct data. 

Publicly Available Data

While technically public, some of these data sources, like legal databases, may require paid credentials to access. You may also consider sending a public records request for some of this data. For example, a city Law Department or Claims Department may keep a list of all the lawsuits filed against the local law enforcement agency that you could request via FOIA.

  • Federal Lawsuits - Civil rights lawsuits filed against law enforcement agencies and their officers can be a wealth of insight into police misconduct.

    • PACER -  Lawsuits filed in federal court are available on the federal website PACER. While you can create a free account to search PACER, the government charges fees to view documents over a certain amount. However, you may be eligible for a fee waiver. More information about PACER fees is available on the Free Law Project website.

    • RECAP Archive - The RECAP Archive is a free searchable collection of millions of PACER documents and dockets, created and managed by the Free Law Project in partnership with The Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. No account or user-registration is necessary to search this database. Users may search by jurisdiction, docket number, document, case name, judge, case type, party name, and attorney name. Visit the RECAP Archive.

  • State Lawsuits - Lawsuits filed in local courts may be available electronically or at the local courthouse. Local civil rights attorney may be able to provide helpful insight into when a case would be filed in federal versus state court.

  • Legal Research Sites - Legal research sites, such as Westlaw, LexisNexis and Bloomberg Law, might also include case information indicative of police misconduct. A search for an officer’s name may turn up civil rights lawsuits against police departments or other noteworthy cases that the officer was involved in. Keep an eye out for cases involving “suppression” or “incredibility”

  • News and Publications - Set up news alerts about the agency or officers you want to track.Local news sources might also be a great source of police misconduct data. Press entities and reporters may have special access to police discipline records that they might be willing to share. Review a sample of news articles from your jurisdiction that discuss police misconduct and check if there is anything they have in common that you could use to specify your alert. For example, maybe an Internal Affairs Department spokesperson is always quoted when an officer is being investigated.

  • Public Civilian Complaints - There are a few national initiatives to make it easier for civilians to publicly complain about police misconduct. A few initiatives are and You should consider connecting with these groups and ask how they might be able to share data with you. also offers the ability for organizations to add a widget to their website where civilians can make complaints about the police.

  • Overtime Data - While overtime data alone is not indicative of misconduct, it can provide helpful insight. Since officers can sometimes game the overtime system, an officer earning a significant amount of overtime could raise a red flag.  Overtime data is typically accessible through an agency’s payroll office.

  • “Open Data” Portals – Some states and counties have started initiatives to share government data through public websites. Check if your jurisdiction has one by googling Open Data Portal and then browse the available data for things like police rosters, salary/overtime data, and lawsuit data. 

  • Social Media - Officers’ public social media profiles can illuminate biases or provide information that might taint their credibility as a witness. You may be able to find officers on social media by searching for people who have tagged their employer as the law enforcement agency. There also might be some forums, blogs, and groups which are frequented by officers in an agency. The Plain View Project has aggregated a database of problematic social media posts by officers from a variety of police departments.

  • Other Public Projects - There is a large wave of academics, journalists, civil rights groups and individuals who have begun initiatives to track police misconduct. There might be a university or local group who is already aggregating police misconduct data in your jurisdiction. A limited, non-exhaustive list of organizations with police accountability projects is available online.

Case-Related Data (For Defenders)

Defense organizations do not have to rely solely on other sources for police misconduct data since it may be disclosed or occur in the cases you represent. You should think through what types of misconduct may become apparent through the course of a case and how you could categorize that information. Some ideas are below:

  • Disclosures - Prosecutors may be required to disclose certain police misconduct information, such as under Brady, that is shareable with others in your organization.  There may also be requirements to turn over lists of lawsuits to the defense. In certain cases, information may be disclosed as a result of a subpoena or court order.

  • Judicial Findings - Certain judicial findings of misconduct can also be considered sources of police misconduct data. Judicial decisions finding an officer incredible or suppressing evidence, for example, can be helpful to track.

  • Client Reports - If you do not have a system to document when a client reports potential police misconduct, consider setting up an informal way to track this.

  • Case Notes - You can often expose themes and patterns of misconduct by simply tracking details in your cases. For example, think about documenting every time a client is charged with drug possession and a lab disputes the finding or when an officer uses an untrustworthy confidential informant.

  • Case Management System – If you have an electronic case management system, consider tracking the law enforcement officers involved in each case and details about the arrest, charges, and case outcomes. This can help identify patterns of enforcement that officers and commands might engage in.  For example, you might find an officer frequently makes drug arrests that get dismissed or makes arrests at intervals that indicate they are under a quota system.


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