May: Police should provide basic information

2007 Columns

In Wisconsin, the law gives the public maximum access to government records and decision-making meetings.  People have the right to know, for example, whom local police have arrested and why.

However, when students in two classes at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh requested daily arrest lists for area city and county police departments, they didn’t get the requested information.

We first trained our students in journalism and human services courses to know their rights under the Wisconsin Open Records Law. The students then filed requests for the police records.

Although no law specifically requires government officials to provide a daily arrest list, officials are expected to promptly provide the names, birth date, time of the arrest, name of arresting officer, and the reason for the arrest. This expectation stems from a pivotal court case, Newspapers Inc. v. Breier, in which a judge concluded:

“We hold as a matter of law that the harm to the public interest in the form of possible damage to the arrested persons’ reputations does not outweigh the public interest in allowing inspection of the police records which show the charges upon which arrests were made. The police blotter shall be open for inspection by the public at any time when the custodian’s office is open for business and the ‘arrest list’ or the police ‘blotter’ is not actually being used for the making of entries therein.”

But today, this ruling seems forgotten. In our study, no police department technically met our requirement for strict interpretation of the law. To comply with the expectations of law, police officials could have provided a copy of the computer logs with information on arrests included, or they could have provided a copy of all incident reports that resulted in arrests.

But the computer logs we saw from various agencies were missing a variety of types of basic information – even simple facts such as the arrest charges or the name of the arresting officer.

The problem may not be willful resistance to opening records. In some cases, police lack procedures to quickly provide information that the public is entitled to review.

Ideally, police departments’ computerized logs would contain the name of the arrested person and birth date, reason for the arrest, name of arresting officer and date and time of arrest. It wouldn’t have to be provided in a standard format, but that would make the process easier.

During the recent Sunshine Week, we celebrated our cherished right to information about the operations of our government. When considering the open records policies of government, it is helpful to remind ourselves that we are the government — and thus the records of police agencies and other arms of government belong to us. We need only be reminded that, in many countries, people have been abducted or held with no recourse to their right to a fair and impartial trial. Certainly, the people of Wisconsin do not want secret arrests.

Davidson and Frisch are professors emerita at UW-Oshkosh. Davidson is a magazine writer and a former newspaper editor. Frisch is a public member of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open records and open government.