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Should law enforcement destroy officers' disciplinary records?

Posted at 8:34 PM, May 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-07 23:57:47-04

MESA, AZ — In an age of transparency, should law enforcement agencies be destroying officers' disciplinary records? It is a controversial topic that is coming to light after two very public alleged use of force cases in Mesa.

Mesa police, wanting an impartial investigation into these incidents brought in former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley to investigate the cases. Romley said the investigation was tough from the start.

"When I start up an internal affairs investigation, one of the things I want to know is the history of officers. Did we have a pattern of problems with these officers? I found out the files of these officers had been purged to a great extent," said Romley.

Files purged? According to the Arizona Records Management Center, it is legal for state and local agencies to purge files according to guidelines that have been set by the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records.

These include everything from crime logs to crime reports and police professional standards or internal affairs records that include critical incident reviews, use of force, weapons deployments, and other related records.

State documents indicate records can be purged three years after an incident is reviewed and there is no sustained complaint. For sustained findings, the retention period is five years.

Col. Frank Milstead, who led the Mesa Police Department from 2010 to 2015, supported and advised officers to purge their documents.

In an exclusive interview with ABC15, Milstead explained why he supported this policy.

"I told the officers at the time, and there's a video out there, that if you have things that you've paid the price for, been disciplined for and that are eligible to be purged by Mesa policy, you should do that. I still stand by that. I don't believe that is a problem," said Milstead. "I think that's reasonable, we all make mistakes we're all human. The human element is alive and well in all of us," said Milstead.

He went on to say if the situation did not involve integrity or assault, there was a process for officers to have these disciplinary write-ups removed from their files. Most of the write-ups included officers who may have said something inappropriate or missed a court date.

"I would adamantly disagree with Mr. Romley. The policy is in place. The policy was approved by the citizens of Mesa and the city council and the mayor at the time," said Milstead.

Romley believes although it may be legal, this is a bad policy and one that law enforcement agencies should stop. "If I was County Attorney and I found out a department had purged its files, I would have a very strong talk with Chief. If that didn't work, I would go to the Mayor and City Council to talk to them about policy."

"We always look at criminal history to see if they are a career criminal, that's just the way it is," said Romley.

ABC15 has put in requests to find out if departments like Mesa and Phoenix are currently purging records. We are still waiting to get the answer.

A DPS spokesman said they hold on to records for a little longer then state recommended standards, but it is still something that is happening today.