June: Preserve public access to police reports

2007 Columns

A recent court ruling against the Evansville Police Department  could carry consequences much greater than the $25,000 that the case will cost the city and its insurance company.

Evansville has begun removing public information from police reports for fear of getting sued – and losing – again. And other local police across Wisconsin are following this wrongheaded example. The result: Residents of some communities will get far less information from their police than state open records law says they deserve.

This new secrecy could spread statewide if nothing is done.

That’s why Wisconsin’s Freedom of Information Council, a coalition of media folks and others interested in open government, is pursuing several courses of action that could spell out more clearly for police departments and potential litigants what information is public and what is not.

The Evansville case involves a police officer who used the state’s drivers license database to learn the address of a woman and then wrongly provided that address to her ex-husband. The ex-husband said he needed it to forward papers to her. In fact, he had harassed her in the past — and a court had issued a restraining order meant to keep him away from the woman.

The woman had moved and had kept her new address from her ex-husband. After he got the address, he sent her a note saying he knew where she lived. She was understandably traumatized.

The woman sued the city of Evansville, and a jury ruled that the police officer shouldn’t have given out the information. The court awarded the woman and her current husband $25,000.

Evansville Police Chief Scott McElroy took the case and the ruling as a sign that his department should stop releasing addresses that his department finds on the driver’s license database. Departments in several other cities have done the same.

That means these departments are now releasing police reports which include names but no other identifying information about people who have been arrested, victimized or otherwise involved in accidents, crimes or other police incidents. As a result, residents are left confused and uninformed about important public safety issues in their communities.

McElroy and the other chiefs have gone too far. The federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act prohibits public access to the state’s driver’s license database and also prohibits police from using the information for anything but law enforcement purposes.

Evansville’s release to the ex-husband clearly violated that requirement.

Police reports, on the other hand, are an obvious extension of law enforcement’s function: They detail the activities of law officers, which is clearly information that the public should be able to monitor.

In this lawsuit-happy world, we can’t blame the police chiefs for being cautious. We don’t believe they are being difficult or vindictive. They are just watching their backs and those of taxpayers in their communities. That’s understandable.

And that’s why the Freedom of Information Council is gearing up to get a state attorney general’s opinion on whether federal law requires police to redact information from routine records.

Council members obviously are confident that such an opinion would help clarify that the public is entitled to identifying information in records such as accident reports. The attorney general could make police chiefs’ jobs easier by confirming this view.

Ultimately, the public benefits from the release of public information. And it’s clear the public is being shortchanged when this information isn’t available.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Janesville Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government.