More than 30 states released their full list of cops. But not Wisconsin.
The state Attorney General’s office denied a records request late last year from a group of news media outlets seeking the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s list of certified law enforcement officers in the state, citing the officers’ safety.
The request was made by a coalition of outlets tracking “wandering officers,” cops that are fired or leave their departments due to poor performance or misconduct and are rehired elsewhere. The state DOJ did provide its list of decertified officers, which it has been tracking since 2017, and its list of “flagged officers;” those who remain certified but were fired for cause, quit in the middle of an investigation, or in lieu of termination.
The Badger Project is part of the coalition.
Tom Kamenick, president and founder of The Wisconsin Transparency Project, a law firm dedicated to enforcing the state’s open records laws, said “it’s good that DOJ makes public information about officers who have faced discipline, but that’s not enough.”
“It’s basically telling the public ‘trust us’ when it comes to internal discipline,” Kamenick wrote in an email to The Badger Project. “And we know that powerful institutions have a poor history of doing that effectively and fairly.”
Kamenick has represented The Badger Project in public records lawsuits.
In its response to the records request, the DOJ said it could not disclose currently certified officers because it would:
- Compromise the privacy and safety of acting officers and their families.
- Reveal the names of agents who are currently undercover or could be undercover at any point in the future.
- Put the safety and security of federal law enforcement personnel, including undercover agents, and federal investigations and other potentially related investigations at risk.
Kamenick said the DOJ is “going too far with this denial.”
“They’re effectively saying that the public has no right to know who is being paid with tax dollars. That’s not a reasonable position,” Kamenick wrote. “This is very basic information and the idea that just knowing the identities of police officers puts them at serious risk is not supportable.”
Jonathan Anderson, a former Wisconsin journalist and now Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota studying the right of access to government information, said denying records of undercover officers or those who could be undercover at some point is “exceedingly broad,” he added.
“They don’t provide any sort of limiting factor there, so that seems to apply to basically anybody,” he said. “I also question it as a practical matter. Are undercover officers using their real names in their undercover work? I’m not a police expert, but I suspect they’re probably not.”
And the idea that disclosing the names of officers puts them and their families at risk is not a serious argument against the public benefit of having these records, said Anderson.
“Police departments all the time post information on their social media and press releases about the good things that police officers are doing. They include photographs of those officers, they include their names of those officers,” Anderson said. “And I think that most officers would disagree with the idea that they would be somehow discouraged from serving as a law enforcement officer if it was known publicly that they’re law enforcement officers. I think that’s kind of a ridiculous assertion.”
The media coalition which made the records request was convened by Big Local News, a program of Stanford University’s Journalism and Democracy Initiative, and includes ABC Owned Television Stations, MuckRock, the Invisible Institute, Hearst Newspapers, NPR member stations, state newsrooms, and student journalists with the University of Maryland Howard Center for Investigative Journalism. Since the coalition began making yearly record requests in 2019, 36 states have fully released their certification data while 14 have issued full denials. Four of the states that initially released the full request for records have since shifted policy and now reject it.
Using the flagged officers list obtained from the state DOJ, a 2021 investigation by The Badger Project found nearly 200 active officers in the state who had been fired or forced out from another law enforcement agency. Later that year, Wisconsin Act 82 was signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers, which requires law enforcement agencies to keep records on all officers, share those employee files with other agencies, and gave Wisconsin’s Law Enforcement Standards Board broader powers to decertify officers. Another investigation from The Badger Project in February 2022 found at least 12 “wandering officers” had been rehired in western Wisconsin.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.