Prosecutors are required to keep track of cops with credibility issues so that, if those officers are asked to testify in court, the defendant's lawyers will be informed about the officers’ past actions.
In effect, prosecutors must notify defense attorneys of any information that could cast doubt on a cop’s testimony, since that information could potentially sway members of a jury and change the outcome of a case.
These lists of cops are often called “Brady” lists, after one of the early court rulings on the matter, although they are formally known as "potential impeachment disclosure" lists. Some county prosecutors maintain files with Brady material on officers, but don’t keep an actual list; we asked for these files as well.
Because criminal trials rely on officers’ testimony and reports, many cops are terminated when evidence emerges that they have lied or been dishonest.
Others, however, continue to work as police officers with this form of a “warning label” attached.
We wanted to find out exactly how many police officers across Washington have credibility problems. We knew this list wouldn’t supply a complete picture of every cop with issues, but as one former public defender told us, it does illustrate at least the tip of the iceberg.
No central government database exists of cops who are placed on Brady lists in Washington state. To get this information, Crosscut filed public records requests for the lists from prosecutors in all of Washington’s 39 counties, compiling the responses into a unique database.
More than 800 officers in all appear on county Brady lists, Crosscut found. The challenge was finding out how many of them were still employed.
To do that, we cross-referenced our statewide list of officers on Brady lists with a database of officers currently working in Washington state. This database is maintained by the state Criminal Justice Training Commission.
This analysis showed 183 officers in Washington state who have been identified by prosecutors as having potential credibility issues, but who remain employed as police officers. That number is likely an undercount, as Crosscut didn’t tally every officer added to county lists in recent months, while the investigation was underway, or cops who may be on separate Brady lists held by city attorneys (except for in Seattle, whose officers are included).
Crosscut also didn’t count a handful of officers who were on the list for medical impairments that appear to have since been resolved. Officers who were placed on Brady lists in Washington state but may have since moved to a police department in another state are not captured in Crosscut’s analysis, either.
Dozens of follow-up records requests helped shed light on why the 183 officers were placed on the lists. But we are still waiting for more records requests to be answered, which is the main reason why we are not sharing our database with the public. Sometimes, the circumstances of what caused an officer to be placed on a county Brady list aren’t entirely clear, so we want to make sure we have all the relevant information.
The many public records requests we filed for this story — more than 100 in all — turned up several examples of police officers who were fired for misconduct, but later reinstated after an arbitrator ruled they should not have been terminated.
Those records formed the basis of another story about police officers appealing disciplinary decisions using arbitration, and how that process has put some fired cops back on the street.