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ACLU critical of statewide list of officers with truthfulness problems

ACLU critical of statewide list of officers with truthfulness problems

  • Updated

PHOENIX — Prosecutors have agreed to create a statewide database of officers whose truthfulness or honesty may be questionable.

But an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union says it appears to be little more than “window dressing” on what he contends is a flawed system. Jared Keenan said it still gives prosecutors a lot of leeway to refuse to add someone to the list and refuse to disclose to defense attorneys exactly what it is that caused that officer’s name to be added.

And the new database is of little use to the public who may want to know more about the police or deputies in their community. Local Brady lists are typically maintained by county prosecutors.

It is searchable only by the name of an individual officer. There is no way for anyone to get a list of all the officers from any individual department who prosecutors or their own superiors have concluded may be less than honest.

In fact, even if someone has a name that scores a hit, it doesn’t show where that person is now working or whether they’re still a sworn officer.

At the heart of the issue is what is known as the “Brady list.” It is named for a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring prosecutors to turn over all evidence to defense that might exonerate the defendant.

That includes the officer’s own history of being truthful.

Elizabeth Ortiz, executive director of the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council, said Thursday that having a statewide list makes it easier for prosecutors to have access to information, potentially about officers they do not know.

“Because law enforcement officers may change jurisdictions during the course of their career, prosecutors need to have access to information from all Arizona jurisdictions,” she said.

And Ortiz said the list will be publicly accessible.

Keenan said that’s a plus. But he pointed out that the reasons someone was placed on the list will not be in the database. For that, individuals would have to then file public records requests with individual prosecutors or police agencies.

That information may be important, he said, and not just for those who are arrested. Others may want to know about the records of officers with whom they may be dealing on a routine basis.

And that still leaves the fact that any search has to be performed on a name-by-name basis.

The guidelines adopted by the prosecutors’ council shows a variety of things should require placement of an officer’s name on the Brady list.

That includes intentionally, knowingly or recklessly making false or misleading statements on a police report or other official document. Other factors include race, gender, ethnicity or national origin bias, a pattern of excessive force, or evidence of abuse of power or acts “that could significantly diminish the public’s trust in law enforcement.”

All that, however, presumes that a prosecutor decides to put someone on the list in the first place – and, even then, whether whatever that officer did in the first place is relevant and has to be disclosed to defense attorneys.

“The list is only as good as the information put into it,” Keenan said.

Ortiz acknowledged that nothing in the newly announced changes imposes strict the standards to determine whose name goes on the list and what gets released.

“Each prosecuting agency makes its own determination regarding whether information must be disclosed under the law,” she said, saying her agency has developed “best practices” for prosecutors “to consider in addressing the issue.”

“Most of this is going to be window dressing,” Keenan said of that decision.

He said the problems are deeper than that, particularly for defense lawyers.

“Prosecutors have every incentive to keep officers off a Brady list and not to disclose information,” he said.

“Even when prosecutors disclose information they feel is required to be disclosed under Brady they often fight the use of that information during trial anyway,” Keenan said, arguing to judges that the officer’s offenses that landed her or him on the list are irrelevant to the question of whether jurors should be able to believe the testimony. “Without those things changing, this statewide list I think is going to have very little impact.”

Sometimes it’s not even an intentional desire to keep someone off a list.

There was a 2016 incident at a Marana bar where Tucson police officer Crystal Morales, off duty, had witnessed a fight involving a relative. An internal affairs investigation initially found she was dishonest with Marana police and recommended she be fired.

But no one put her name on the local list maintained by the Pima County Attorney’s Office. It was only after that oversight was discovered that more than 100 criminal cases in Pima County in which she was involved were placed under review.

State lawmakers have attempted to tinker with the rules involving Brady lists, but not in a way to provide for more public disclosure or put teeth into requirements for putting an officer on the list.

In 2019, Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, sponsored legislation that would have allowed law enforcement officers to actually get their names removed from the list.

What wasn’t disclosed is that the request came from Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, who was placed on the list after being fired from the El Mirage Police Department for lying to his boss about the loss of a tablet computer. Even Kavanagh said he wasn’t aware of the reason Kern wanted the measure.

Earlier this year Rep. John Allen, R-Phoenix, attempted to add an appeal process for officers to use even before being placed on the list. It also sought to preclude police agencies from using the list in hiring or firing.

That measure was approved by the House but died in the Senate.

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