How long is long enough to retain records of citizen complaints against police officers, or internal investigations of police officers' on-the-job actions?
This is a question an Atherton City Council member raised at last night's council meeting, walking a tightrope that gradually led to a compromise between the council and Interim Police Chief Ed Flint.
Chief Flint sought the council's approval to destroy records of 10 five-year-old cases involving citizen complaints or questionable behavior by officers that led to investigations. In all instances, the officers were exonerated.
Records destruction is "standard operating procedure for all police departments," Chief Flint told the council.
The law permits the destruction of citizen complaints after five years, and internal investigations after two, if a number of criteria are met. None of the records proposed for a date with the shredder involved pending litigation, and all were reviewed by the city attorney.
But Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of destroying the records, especially when Chief Flint, responding to her questions, said that some of the records involved officers still on the force, and that storage space for the records wasn't a problem.
She also appeared somewhat uncomfortable challenging the request, at one point asking Chief Flint if he would be offended if the council required the department to keep some of the records. He said no.
When council members Jerry Carlson, Jim Dobbie and Elizabeth Lewis said that they trusted the interim chief to make the right choices of records to destroy, Ms. McKeithen responded, "But we represent the residents of Atherton."
Given the public's perspective about the town's lack of transparency over several troubled years, and the number of emails council members had received from residents about the proposed action, "it's important we do everything possible" to show the town is performing above board, she said.
Ms. McKeithen said her concern didn't center on a lack of trust. But Chief Flint has been at the helm of the police department only since last year, and the cases in question occurred five years ago, she noted.
Resident Jon Buckheit, who is suing the town and four police officers over his 2008 arrest, urged the council not to approve the request. Turning to Chief Flint, he said, "I think you have done a lot to (promote) accountability in Atherton, but this should not happen."
Although the records involving Mr. Buckheit's case aren't on the list of those to be destroyed, he has become a police department watchdog of sorts since his arrest and subsequent dealings with the department. (Mr. Buckheit was found factually innocent in San Mateo County Superior Court of the original accusations involving domestic violence.)
Mayor Bill Widmer shared Ms. McKeithen's concerns. "It's important that if someone is still on the force ... we keep the records regardless of if the complaint was sustained or not," he said before proposing to amend the recommended action to prohibit destruction of records involving currently employed officers.
The council unanimously approved the amended motion.
During the discussion, Chief Flint noted that he had carefully chosen the records targeted for destruction, and that the department is retaining some records that are older than five years because they involve an officer or officers he considers "problematic."