Police records include but are not limited to: statistics on crime within the department jurisdiction, arrest records, accident reports, incident reports (commonly known as "police reports"); information on solved and unsolved or "cold" cases; gun permit applications; and information contributing to ongoing investigations.
With over 12 million arrests nationwide, 33,804 traffic deaths, and 800,000-1,000,000 gun permit applications each year, the volume of police records is staggering.
Aside from the obvious arrest records, police may hold physical or documentary records (actual items, testimony, eyewitness accounts, etc.) in archives or evidence rooms. These items and documents are not often available to the public and may require formal requests to access. Generally these items and witness statements are collected until police are able to compile enough evidence to charge a person with a crime if he or she were not arrested on the scene of an incident.
Any piece of information or evidence held by police that contributes to an active investigation can be considered a police record, and access to those records can be challenging. Another layer of complexity is added when state police make an arrest. They are involved when coordinating efforts of several law enforcement concerns, because an arrest concerns more than one state or because the jurisdiction of local police or sheriffs’ departments do not apply. Records of state police requests may be requested through that organization’s headquarters. Sheriffs’ deputies may make arrests in some jurisdictions like unincorporated county areas and on county property and under some circumstances such as in the process of serving arrest warrants. Sheriffs’ duties vary from state to state.
Arrest records, including booking information, physical description, criminal complaint, place of residence and details about bail are considered public information. However police may withhold information if it pertains to an ongoing, "active" investigation or if releasing the information may endanger another person. Oftentimes the contributory "incident" information is collected in a publicly-accessible "log" that may be requested at the front desk of a police station or online. The log briefly describes a situation that may lead to an arrest, such as an eyewitness calling to report shoplifting, a hit-and-run traffic accident, or an assault.
Those who are arrested by police and booked for significant offenses (more than misdemeanors) are held until a magistrate or judge hears the evidence and sets bail, often the next morning. This information is generally made part of the arrest report.
If a person is not arrested on site following the report of a crime, the public record of that arrest may not be easily connected with the incident report without some digging. If police amass information and seek an arrest warrant from a judge, the information on the warrant may be difficult to access because it may be considered information contributing to an ongoing investigation.
Records of arrests of juveniles (those under age 18) and some domestic violence reports are not accessible to the public. However those juveniles who are charged as adults (generally for major crimes and aggravated/premeditated circumstances) may be released on a case-by-case basis.
In the Public Interest
Oftentimes police will deny public access to any but the most basic crime statistics, reports and arrest records but release more detailed information to the press, even cold case information that concerns ongoing investigations (called "cold cases" because leads have dried up). The reasons for selectively releasing information are varied and may be an official’s interpretation of public record law or the request may languish because of "insufficient manpower" available to retrieve, review and release information. Media often has the advantage of working "in the public interest" and may get quicker results because police see an opportunity to find more witnesses or gather more evidence when information is widely released through media events and interviews that are published or broadcast. At times police may release information for public relations purposes: not all law enforcement officials are appointed, and many need votes to keep their jobs.
Private law enforcement entities, such as those patrolling college campuses, are not subject to public records requests. Despite the severity of crimes and offenses that may occur on campuses – and affect the surrounding non-college population, campus police are not required to release information about arrests, homicides, burglaries, assaults and other crimes. In these cases, the local district court is the place to find information on arraignments and charges that take place on campus.