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.
This report provides details on an arrest made by police.
Sample Arrest Reports:
- O. J. Simpson armed robbery case in Las Vegas - Smoking Gun website
- Survivor contestant Richard Hatch - Smoking Gun website
- George W. Bush DUI - Smoking Gun website
This report provides details on police responses to citizen calls for assistance, reports of accidents or reports of crimes being committed.
Sample Incident Reports
- Tiger Woods Accident Report - Smoking Gun website
- O.J. Simpson road rage incident in Miami - Smoking Gun website
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.