Police Records

Tutorial: Police Records

Introduction

police records

Police and other law enforcement agencies investigating crimes compile a number of different records in criminal cases. These include:

  • arrest and incident reports (which are usually difficult to obtain)
  • logs of arrests and responses to incidents by police (which usually are open to the public)
  • search warrants and coroner’s office reports (which also usually are open to public inspection)

Very few criminal records are available on the Internet.

This guide describes for reporters what records are publicly available in criminal cases investigated by police, focusing on California.

Police Reports

Police investigate crimes and arrest people, but they do not charge people with crimes. Charges are filed by prosecutors – such as a district attorney’s office – and a court case is only opened when a person has been formally charged.

Police records thus are not part of the court system, and documents like arrest reports or crime/incident reports kept at police departments are not presumed to be open to the public as court records are.

Thus almost no police investigative records are posted online.

There are two main types of reports written by police officers – arrest reports and crime or incident reports.

Arrest Report

This report provides details on an arrest made by police.

Sample Arrest Reports:

Crime or Incident Report

This report provides details on police responses to citizen calls for assistance, reports of accidents or reports of crimes being committed.

Sample Incident Reports

What’s Publicly Available

While police records are subject to state public records laws like the California Public Records Act, many types of police records are specifically exempt from disclosure. There also are general exemptions that police can cite, such as that the release of information  would endanger someone’s life or undermine an investigation, to decline to provide copies of arrest or crime/incident reports.

As a result, police departments vary widely in how they respond to reporters’ requests for arrest or crime reports. Some will routinely provide the reports but with sensitive information edited out. Some will provide most reports but withhold those that concern sensitive pending cases. Some will decline to release any police reports.

Here are links to some Bay Area police department web sites that have information on obtaining police records:

See, for example, this San Francisco Chronicle story about how police in San Francisco cut back public access to police records, even basic information from arrest and incident report logs.

Reporters can ask for a copy of a police report, but if the police decline to provide it they probably are within their rights to do so.

This is why it’s important for a reporter to check the court record to see if criminal charges have been filed in a case. In the court file you’ll sometimes find police reports attached to the original criminal complaint that a prosecutor files against a defendant listing the charges against him/her.

So the same documents that police decline to give to a reporter might be publicly accessible in the court file.

See our other tutorial on Criminal Court Records for help on accessing criminal case records filed in courts.

Jail & Bail

When police arrest a person, the person usually is held at a county or city jail facility until the prosecutor’s office decides whether to file charges. Jails keep records of people they have in custody or who have been released on bail.

For help on what information is available on jail inmates and how a reporter can interview them, see our other tutorial on Jail and Prison Records.

Arrest Warrants

Police often will obtain an arrest warrant signed by a judge to apprehend a person.

Arrest warrants are used in various circumstances, such as when officers have investigated a crime, identified a suspect and then want to go to a particular place and arrest the person, such as at the person’s home.

To obtain an arrest warrant, a police officer usually goes to a prosecutor who then must convince a judge that a crime has occurred and there is probable cause that the accused was responsible for the crime. The judge then can sign an arrest warrant.

An arrest warrant will list the defendant’s name, a narrative description of the crime, the amount of bail and the court in which the warrant was issued.

Arrest warrants generally aren’t made publicly available by police agencies.

But see the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office warrants database, which has summary information on warrants issued against people in that county.

Arrest Logs

A police department keeps an arrest log that has the names and addresses of people arrested by police officers, where they were arrested and other details about the circumstances of the arrests and the people arrested. These logs generally are presumed to be public.

In California, these are the details about a person arrested by police that should be made public under the California Public Records Act:

  • Full name of the person arrested
  • Occupation
  • Date of birth
  • Sex
  • Physical description including color of eyes and hair, height and weight
  • Time and date of arrest
  • Time and date of booking
  • Location of the arrest
  • The factual circumstances surrounding the arrest
  • Amount of bail set
  • Time and manner of release or the location where the individual is currently being held
  • All charges the individual is being held upon, including any outstanding warrants from other jurisdictions and parole or probation holds

However, even these details can be withheld if “disclosure of a particular item of information would endanger the safety of a person involved in an investigation or would endanger the successful completion of the investigation or a related investigation.”

What’s Available Online

A few police departments put their arrest logs online. You’ll need to check the website for a police department to see if the arrest log is available online.

See for example:

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Daily Arrest Log (in pdf format)

Davis Police Department Arrest Log & Daily Activity Log – combines log of arrests with incident log

The San Francisco Chronicle also publishes a feed of arrest records for people arrested in Bay Area cities.

Some of the arrest records put online by the Chronicle and other local news outlets come from a website called Local Crime News.

Incident Logs

A police department keeps an incident log of citizen calls for assistance, accident investigations and reports of crimes. The logs will include some details on the circumstances of the calls. These logs generally are presumed to be public.

These are the details about incidents reported to police (which are often referred to as public requests for assistance or complaints, and which also include accident reports) that should be made public under the California Public Records Act:

  • Time and date of the incident or complaint
  • Location of the complaint
  • The substance of the complaint
  • Time, date and nature of the police response
  • Time and date of any police report on the incident
  • Name and age of the victim (although this information is withheld in the case of many specific crimes, such as sexual assault, and it can be withheld at the request of the victim)
  • The factual circumstances surrounding the incident
  • A general description of any injuries, property, or weapons involved in the incident

However, even these details can be withheld if “disclosure of a particular item of information would endanger the safety of a person involved in an investigation or would endanger the successful completion of the investigation or a related investigation.”

What’s Available Online – Sample Incident Logs

Some police departments put their incident or report logs online.

Here are some examples:

California Highway Patrol

California Highway Patrol Traffic Incident Log

To see San Francisco Bay Area traffic incidents, click on the Communication Centers drop-down menu at the top left and select Golden Gate. To decipher abbreviations used in the incident logs, in the drop-down menu under Resources in the upper right select Glossary.

Berkeley Police Department

Berkeley Police Department Daily Calls for Service Log

Posted daily in pdf format.

Martinez Police Department

Martinez Police Department Daily Log

Posted daily in pdf format.

Palo Alto Police Department

Palo Alto Police Department Report Log

Posted daily in pdf format.

Davis Police Department

Davis Police Department Arrest Log & Daily Activity Log

Combines log of arrests and incident log.

Penal Code Sections

Finding the Descriptions of Crimes for Different Penal Code Sections

Police records usually refer to penal code sections in describing crimes police are investigating.

For example, section 187 of the penal code is for homicides.

How can you find out which crimes the various sections of the state penal code stand for?

The Berkeley Police Department has a list of commonly used penal code sections and which crimes they refer to. That’s at:

Berkeley Police Department Crime Classifications and Codes

For complete penal code listings, you can search by a penal code section number at the state government’s California Law site to find out what crime it relates to:

California Law website

At the site check the box next to Penal Code. In the search box type in the number for the penal code section you’re interested in (such as 187).

At the search results page, click on the first listing. That should give you the penal code section you’re seeking (the other listings are for other sections of the penal code that make reference to the penal code section you searched for).

Search Warrants

Police must get a judge’s written approval to conduct searches of private property in criminal investigations (unless the person in possession of the property consents to a search).

These documents approved by judges are called search warrants.

Search warrant filings thus are court-related public records. And they can have very detailed information on a criminal case being investigated.

Most courts assign a clerk to manage the files for the search warrants granted by judges to law enforcement officers.

These search warrant files are separate from the actual criminal court cases in which people are charged with crimes (search warrants often are obtained by police before any arrests or formal charges are filed in a case).

Local police agencies in California will file search warrants in county superior courts, while federal law enforcement officers (FBI, DEA, U.S. Customs, etc.) will file search warrants in U.S. district courts.

The search warrants are organized differently in different courts. An index usually is kept by date, and then within each date is a list of the addresses of the places approved to be searched that day. In other cases the index may just be numerically arranged by a number the court assigns for each warrant.

Search warrants are not indexed according to the names of the people whose property is being searched or seized, which can make it difficult for a reporter to track down the files.

Thus you’ll often need to ask a law enforcement officer or a prosecutor for the search warrant file number, or for the date a search was approved by a judge and a description of what was searched, in order to dig the search warrant records out of the court clerk’s files.

Search warrants have to be obtained to search everything from a residence or business to a vehicle or other personal property, such as a storage facility or a bank safety deposit box.

Search Warrant Filings

Here’s what’s in a search warrant file:

  • The application for the search warrant filed with a judge by a law enforcement officer describing what property the officer wants to search.
  • An affidavit prepared by the law enforcement officer detailing the criminal case being investigated and the evidence that exists against the person whose property is to be searched. The affidavit is required to demonstrate there is probable cause that a crime has occurred that justifies conducting the search.
  • A list of items being sought in the search. Police can’t just search for anything, they must specify what they’re looking for and the items must be related to the criminal case being investigated.
  • The judge’s order approving the search warrant.
  • An inventory of what was taken by authorities during the search. This inventory is usually referred to as a return on the search warrant.

The search warrant and related documents should be filed with the clerk’s office within 10 days of conducting the search, and often are filed sooner.

Law enforcement officials also can get a judge’s order sealing a search warrant. Usually this is done if the search warrant affidavit contains sensitive information that would jeopardize an investigation if made public.

Sample Search Warrants

About this Tutorial

This tutorial was originally written by Paul Grabowicz for students in his Computer Assisted Reporting class, and later modified for public use.

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