Laws for public access to free police records vary per state, and even individual police departments may handle access differently. Files are most easily accessed at the local PD's records section, though you can also turn to free (and paid) public records sites to get a leg up on your sources.
The term "police records" is thrown around so often in your favorite binge-able procedurals and popcorn flicks that we don't often realize how general a phrase it is – police records encompass a huge swath of territory, including arrest and incident reports, arrest and response logs, search warrants and coroner's office reports. Some of these are a matter of public record while others are not, but in any case, you only need to pick up the phone or take a trip down to your local police department to start your search.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Most state laws make a variety of police records public, but you may have to visit your local precinct to find out more.
Police Records: The Basics
Though this may change on a case-by-case basis, logs of arrests and responses to incidents by the police, search warrants and coroner's office reports are typically open to public inspection, while arrest and incident reports may be more difficult to obtain. State laws pertaining to the public's access to police records and other public records vary across the U.S., too. In California, for instance, the California Public Records Act makes detailed arrest logs and certain information from incident logs public. Commonly, similar state laws make common-sense exemptions to public disclosure, granting law enforcement agencies the right to withhold information or documents that may jeopardize a criminal investigation or put someone at risk, for example. Information on juvenile cases is typically protected.
Because police don't charge people with crimes (they just investigate and make arrests), you won't always find these documents available in the public court system. Unless charges have been filed, these records live at the precinct or in an external archive.
Old-School Free Police Records
Because state laws vary and even individual police departments may handle public access to records differently, the most effective way to get your eyes on free police records is to show up at the relevant precinct in person (of course, if criminal charges have been filed, you'll have easier access to public records at the courthouse). You'll be more likely to get access to records if you've been the victim of a crime or are involved with the incident in question, so don't forget to bring a valid ID.
What you're looking for is the records section, or records department. Some police departments recommend that you call ahead and ask for the records section, as processing reports may take a week or more. This is because reports are typically kept on file only at the station for a few days before being sent to an archive at another location. In some cases, you'll also have to pay a small fee for hard copies, though browsing is free.
Free Public Records Sites
If you're wondering how to find a police report online for free, you've likely been met by a cavalcade of free public record sites, like CheckPeople and StateRecords.org, which promise documents such as arrest records, jail and inmate records, criminal records and police reports. Sites of this ilk may charge a per-search fee or a subscription price, but many offer free trial periods to assuage your curiosity.
It's not exactly standard practice for police reports to end up online; BRB Publications reports that over 25 percent of state and government agencies don't provide public online records, so showing up in-person is almost always your best bet. When that's not an option, or when you want to start with a little casual research, these types of sites act as aggregate sources. The information they have is public and nonexclusive, but they've done the legwork of gathering it all in one place for you.
In addition to the limited ability to search police reports by name, you can often access documents like divorce records, lawsuits and property records at these sites.
More to Know
Though it's not the most common practice, some police departments – such as the Sonoma County Sheriff's Daily Arrest Log or the Davis Police Department's Arrest Log and Daily Activity Log – make a selection of records publicly and freely available online. Others provide incident and report logs online; check the websites of your local police department, sheriff's department and even highway patrol, as your mileage may vary here. Likewise, local online papers may publish recent arrest records.