Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Information is the currency of democracy.” In the world of law enforcement labor organizations, information may, indeed, be currency. Information may be the difference between a 1.5% pay raise and a 2.5% pay raise. It may mean the difference between a union member being terminated or having his job restored by an arbitrator.
Imagine buying car. As the potential purchaser, you would love to know the true manufacturing and overhead cost of the car, so that you could negotiate as close to that number as possible, thus putting yourself in the best position. Understandably, the salesperson does not want you to know the accurate numbers or the dealership’s true bottom line.
Likewise, in the field of public sector labor law, we sometimes find that management does not necessarily want to advertise its true financial picture. The management negotiator may state or testify that a governmental entity’s General Fund balance has decreased sharply since the financial collapse of 2008, but that negotiator may go out of his or her way not to disclose that monies have since been strategically siphoned off and hidden in a capital fund or a special project fund. Unscrupulous finance department personnel seem to have a knack for “hiding” money when it comes time for collective bargaining.
Public sector labor unions have always had many challenges with respect to getting business done on behalf of their members. We are faced with unreasonably tight-fisted management negotiators and obstructionist bureaucrats at every turn. Not the least of our challenges is the ability to obtain timely, relevant, and accurate information, especially from those against whom we bargain and litigate.
We need good, accurate information when collectively bargaining, when handling disciplinary matters, when processing grievances, and when litigating unfair labor practice charges. So, how does one obtain such information from one’s opponent in these matters? One answer is through properly made public records requests. In practice, a bargaining unit member or a union advocate making such a request must be able to effectively navigate Ohio’s sometimes tricky Sunshine Laws so as to obtain that information which will actually make a difference.
This article seeks to provide some guidance on how to properly make a public records request. Before making a public records request, the requester may wish to become familiar with Ohio Revised Code Chapter 149, under which most public records requests in Ohio are made. Additionally, the requester should be armed with the latest edition of the Ohio’s Attorney General’s “Ohio Sunshine Laws – An Open Government Resource Manual,” which is commonly referred to as the “Yellow Book.” The 2012 version of this comprehensive guide can be found at www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/YellowBook.
One threshold issue related to making a public records request is whether the entity whose records are being sought is actually a “public office” within the meaning of R.C. 149.011(A), thus making it subject to public records requests. Obvious public offices are cities, counties, townships, and villages. Interestingly, any private entity that is the “functional equivalent” of a government entity is also properly subject to a records request.
Once the requester establishes that the requestee is, in fact, a public office or functional equivalent, the requester needs to analyze whether the information sought is actually a “public record” within the meaning of R.C. 149.011(G). A public record is:
1) That which is stored on a fixed medium (i.e., tapes, e-mails, photos, film, video, paper, etc.), AND
2) Is created or received by or has come under the jurisdiction of a public office, AND
3) The record relates to what that public office does (i.e., the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the office).
Each and every one of these elements must be met in order for an item to be subject to a public records request. Here are some practical examples of items which are not public records:
1) An e-mail sent or received from a public sector e-mail account asking a coworker to go to lunch. Note that in order for an e-mail to be a public record, it must relate to what a public office does.
2) A record not yet in existence. If a requester asks a City to create a document or record that does not already exist, the City has no obligation to create a record and release that information.
3) A record that once existed, but has been lawfully disposed of in accordance with a public employer’s approved records retention policy. If a public office does not possess a record, then it has no obligation to produce it upon request.
4) Notes taken by a member of a public office, if those notes are kept as personal papers (not official records), are kept for the employee’s own convenience, and other employees did not have access to the notes.
There are some specific statutory exceptions to public records requests. Examples include healthcare provider-patient records (a specific example of this where a County Jail is actually a health care provider for inmates). Student records are another example. More importantly for law enforcement personnel is the statutory exemption for the residential and family information of peace officers, parole officers, probation officers, bailiffs, prosecuting attorneys, assistant prosecuting attorneys, correctional employees, youth services employees, firefighters, EMT’s, and BCI&I investigators. Likewise, Social Security numbers and direct deposit bank account information is statutorily protected from public records requests.
The final exception to the Public Records Act that will be discussed in this article is the Confidential Law Enforcement Investigatory Record. A CLEIR is not a public record if it pertains to a “law enforcement matter” involving a specific suspicion of misconduct and the investigating agency has the authority to enforce law. That misconduct must be criminal, civil, or administrative in nature, but does not include an investigation exclusively concerning internal personnel discipline. If internal personnel discipline is a potential outcome, in addition to other criminal, civil, or administrative penalties which are also potential outcomes, then the CLEIR remains a non-public record. However, if the law enforcement employer states that an investigation is exclusively concerning internal personnel discipline, then recorded material concerning the investigation is properly subject to a public records request. If the release of a CLEIR, would reveal the name of an uncharged suspect, the name of a confidential source, put someone’s physical safety at risk, or reveal investigatory techniques or procedures, then the CLEIR may not be subject to a records request.
In terms of format, there is no special way of making a public records request. Any “person” can make a records request. A request may be written or verbal. The requester’s motivation for the request is not relevant, nor is the identity of the requester. The requester must make the request specific enough so that the public office can fulfill the request, if it is possible to fulfill, and must indicate a mechanism for how to receive the information that he or she has requested. Otherwise, there are no “magic words” necessary to make a lawful public records request. The public office cannot require the requester to put the request in writing or identify himself or herself.
The tips discussed here are merely a starting point to a large body of law related to public records and open government. Should you have any questions on the issue, please do not hesitate to contact your OPBA Attorney or Business Agent for further guidance.
Most of the case law discussed in Police Beat tends to center around recent benchmark federal court cases and significant Ohio Supreme Court cases that could have implications for OPBA members. There are two very recent Ohio Court of Appeals cases (August 19, 2011 and September 9, 2011, respectively) that are relevant to your work as members of the law enforcement community. Both cases deal with civil suits related to officer discipline.
ORICK v. DAYTON, 2011-Ohio-4193
Gregory Orick is a City of Dayton police officer. In February of 2008, he was the second officer to arrive at the scene of a routine traffic stop. By the time Orick arrived, the first officer had already put the driver of the vehicle in the back of his cruiser because the driver had no driver’s license and there were multiple active warrants for his arrest.
Orick approached the passenger of the stopped vehicle, Arthur Martin. Orick “walked up to the passenger side of the car and told Martin that he was free to go. Martin was 5’10” tall, weighed around 290 pounds, and was significantly larger than Orick.” (Orick supra.) Officer Orick directed Martin to leave the scene more than fourteen (14) times. Orick warned Martin that “he needed to leave the area, that Martin would be under arrest if he failed to leave, and finally, that Martin would be tasered if he failed to leave.” (Id.)
“Orick withdrew his Taser and told Martin that he would be tasered if he did not leave the area. Martin crossed his arms, puffed himself up, and said, ‘It’s up to you, dog.’ Orick used his Taser on Martin once, at which point, Martin dropped to the ground, immobilized. Orick then said, ‘You are not so tough now, are you?’” (Id.)
Orick called for a supervisor. The sergeant who arrived assessed the situation and conducted an investigation. The sergeant concluded that Orick violated various departmental policies related to use of force and conduct unbecoming. He recommended that a reprimand be issued. Subsequently, Lieutenant Michael Martin acted as a disciplinary hearing officer and recommended a three-day suspension be issued. Thereafter, Police Chief Richard Biehl concurred with the three-day suspension recommendation.
Orick appealed to the Dayton Civil Service Board. An evidentiary hearing was held. The Board disaffirmed the Chief’s disciplinary action against Orick. Primarily because the city had not adhered to its own policy of retraining its officers on Taser use on a yearly basis, the Board mitigated the penalty to a one-day suspension. The Board agreed that a technical policy violation took place, but reasoned, among other things, that the penalty was not appropriate in a Taser use-of-force situation since the police department had not complied with its own training policies.
Both the city and Officer Orick appealed the Board’s decision to the Court of Common Pleas. The trial court went a step further and concluded that Orick had not violated any rules. The city appealed. However, the Second District Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to rescind all disciplinary action against Officer Orick.
The take-away of this case for OPBA members in a disciplinary situation is to always ask yourself and your OPBA representative/attorney to consider whether the employer is complying with its own training rules.
RIOTTE v. CLEVELAND, 2011-Ohio-4507
The plaintiff in Riotte v. Cleveland sought damages against the City of Cleveland for failing to discipline a police officer. There were several other causes of action involved in this case, but for purposes of this article, only the “failure to discipline” cause of action will be discussed.
The facts are as follows: On December 12, 2008, Emil Azzam was traveling Southbound on State Route 176. His vehicle ended up off the road and facing the other direction. An off-duty police officer saw the crash and called 911. Approximately 20 minutes later, Police Officer Daniel Brill arrived on the scene. The Officer “approached Azzam’s vehicle, looked inside, saw that the driver’s side airbag had deployed, went back to his cruiser and called for a tow truck.” (Riotte supra.) The vehicle was towed. On December 14 or December 15, 2011, Azzam’s body was discovered in the vehicle. Azzam’s estate alleges in its complaint that Azzam was alive when Officer Brill approached the vehicle. “The complaint alleges that the city is liable for the officer’s conduct under the doctrine of respondeat superior. Further, the complaint seeks damages against the city for its alleged failure to discipline Brill.” (Id.)
The city and Officer Brill filed a motion to dismiss based on the doctrine of governmental immunity. The trial court denied the motion in its entirety. The city and Brill appealed the denial of that motion.
Then on September 8, 2011, Eighth District Court of Appeals rendered a split decision with respect to the various assignments of error raised in the defendants’ appeal. In its unanimous opinion, the Court held that the plaintiff’s cause of action relating to the city’s failure to discipline Brill should have been dismissed by the trial court. The Court found that providing police service is a governmental function subject to statutory immunity unless a specific exception applies. There is no specific immunity exception for an employer’s failure to discipline an employee in a police department. (See also McCloud v. Nimmer , 72 Ohio App. 3d 533, 595 N.E.2d 492 and Hall-Pearson v. S. Euclid , Cuyahoga App. No. 73429.)
The Court in Riotte concluded that “the defendants’ motion to dismiss should have been granted as it related to [plaintiff’s] claim against the city for its alleged failure to discipline Officer Brill.” (Id.) The remaining causes of action against the defendants survived the Court of Appeals review and have been remanded to the trial court for further proceedings which are still pending as of this writing.
The practical value of this case is that the arguments we frequently hear from government employers about how that government entity will be open to greater civil exposure if it does not discipline (or more harshly discipline) an employee is often incorrect. A plaintiff will generally not be able to recover damages against a law enforcement employer unless that plaintiff can effectively establish that the employer has engaged in a pattern such as a “systemic failure to appropriately discipline officers who used excessive force.” (See Perez v. Miami-Dade County, 168 Fed. Appx. 338 [11th Cir., 2006].) Potential civil liability for a specific use of force incident is determined by actions or inactions of that government entity and its employees prior to and contemporaneous with the complained of conduct, not based on the employer’s behavior (i.e., whether and how it issued discipline) after the use of force has already occurred.
In the course of their employment, law enforcement officers often find themselves deciding whether to use force and, if so, how much force to use. What is a use of force and what is not?
In its periodic study, Police Use of Force in America, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) defines the use of force as “[t]he amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject.” These studies identify five components of force: physical, chemical, electronic, impact, and firearm. The IACP studies specifically do not take into consideration the “display” of a firearm when analyzing law enforcement use of force, however, some individual law enforcement agencies do.
The analysis required to make use of force decisions is critical to all involved and its importance cannot be overemphasized. The “use of force continuum” is a concept that gained prevalence in American law enforcement agencies in the 1980’s. Similar to the rules of engagement in a military context, use of force continua are guidelines that illustrate how much force a law enforcement officer ought to use in response to specific situations. An officer should escalate or de-escalate appropriate levels of force in response to a subject’s actions. Levels of force on some continua begin with mere “presence” of an officer or verbal commands, and continue all the way up to the use of deadly force.
Use of force continua are agency specific. They may be so formal as to be incorporated into an agency’s policy and procedure manual. Some are excruciatingly specific while others are somewhat vague. One of these vague areas is whether “force” in the technical sense, is used when an officer displays his or her duty weapon in response to the actions or inactions of a subject.
Law enforcement employers are split as to whether the “display” of a firearm is an actual use of force. Some hold that drawing one’s service weapon is absolutely a use of force and should be placed at least at the middle of the agency’s continuum. Other agencies view drawing, but not using, a deadly weapon as a routine practice that ought not to be highly discouraged. These latter agencies argue that regularly discouraging officers from displaying their weapons has two negative consequences. First, causing officers to second guess drawing their weapon may put them at greater risk of personal harm. Second, discouraging or disciplining officers for drawing their weapons may have an unintended chilling effect upon the entire agency, thus reducing the agency’s effectiveness.
Aside from the practical analysis in which both employers and employees engage, there is also a legal analysis that should be considered. Any use of force must be justified in order for an employee to avoid adverse consequences. (i.e., disciplinary action, civil action, and even criminal action.) However, the Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has held that merely drawing one’s weapon and displaying it is a show of force or a threat of force, but not actually a “use of force.” The 6th Circuit reasoned that law enforcement professionals are sometimes called upon to use “techniques of intimidation and force.” Such displays are better than actually having to use force. This Federal Circuit Court, which has geographical jurisdiction over Ohio, has made a distinction between the display of a service weapon (threat of force) and the use of force (firing the weapon or otherwise using it on another as a weapon). The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals seems to concur with the analysis of its sister court when it reasoned:
By giving [an officer] the ability to pull out and point a service revolver at someone without risking tort liability, he may be able to abort a potentially violent situation. Conversely, to subject such displays of force to second guessing by a jury may increase the likelihood that the officer will wait until the situation escalates further before drawing his gun, and there end up having to (or believing he has to) shoot to protect himself or others.
Courts analyze an officer’s actions according to the “reasonable officer standard.” In other words, what would an ordinary, reasonable, appropriately trained, law enforcement officer do under the same or a similar circumstance? The real question is whether the officer acted reasonably considering the facts available to him or her at the time that a decision is made.
With all of this in mind, should the “display” of a firearm be a component of a law enforcement agency’s use of force continuum? The cases discussed would seem to indicate that it should not. Rather, the display of a weapon is a threat of force. With this in mind, it is important to understand how your individual department views the display of a service weapon. It is also important to understand that, while a department may view a situation as a use of force, courts and arbitrators may view the facts and the law differently than the employer. Most importantly, if any use of force question arises, always consult with your OPBA representative for further advice and guidance on the matter.
 Collins v. Nagle, 892 F.2d 489 (6th Cir. 1989).
 See Gaddis v. Redford Township, 364 F.3d 764 (6th Cir. 2004).
 Collins supra.
 Hinojosa v. Terrel, 834 F.2d 1223 (5th Cir. 1988).
Last Updated (Tuesday, 28 June 2011 20:16)