Law enforcement organizations, including federal, state and local police departments, are responsible for upholding laws and protecting communities according to the regulations and policies that legislators determine. This means that law enforcement professionals, including sworn officers as well as administrative and support staff, are not above the law. One area where law enforcement professionals need to take care is in the handling of personal or sensitive information, which some departments protect by asking employees to sign confidentiality agreements.
A confidentiality agreement in law enforcement is a formal document that seeks to protect the personal, sensitive and secretive information that law enforcement agencies deal with as a matter of routine operations. A confidentiality agreement makes department-wide policies clear, in writing, for all employees. It also specifies the requirements for disclosing information as needed in a way that is consistent with local laws, including laws that protect citizens' rights to information. Confidentiality agreements help prevent disciplinary procedures for improper handling of information and help law enforcement agencies avoid costly lawsuits. They also make investigations easier by withholding information about police actions from the public.
Each police department's confidentiality agreement is different. Some are simple one-page forms, while others spell out more specific policies in detail. In any case, law enforcement confidentiality agreements usually include some of the same elements. The first is a general description of what behavior is prohibited. An agreement will also include a section dealing with the chain of command and the rights of superiors to request information or order information to be withheld. More detailed agreements may lay out guidelines for handling information in various forms, such as paperwork and electronic archives. Confidentiality agreements typically require employee signatures and dates.
Law enforcement confidentiality agreements cover a wide range of types of information, not all of which is obviously sensitive or secret. Photographic evidence, police reports and information about ongoing investigations all fall under a confidentiality agreement's coverage. So too do things such as the names of people who file complaints or offer evidence to law enforcement personnel. States protect the identities of underage suspects by placing special restrictions on their personal information, which confidentiality agreements also address as needed.
Certain circumstances require law enforcement professionals to go outside the normal procedures that a confidentiality agreement requires. For example, if members of the press win court orders to receive access to photographic evidence or police reports, police departments must obey these orders and make the once-confidential information available. Law enforcement confidentiality agreements also allow senior officers or administrators to request information that employees would otherwise need to withhold.