Monday, January 9, 2012

AG to police: Incident reports must be open for public inspection

State Attorney General Scott Pruitt wants police to know that initial incident reports may not be withheld from the public as part of investigatory files.

"The state Legislature has made it clear in this regard that a police department's initial offense report or 'cover sheet' should be open for public inspection, regardless of its inclusion in an investigation file," Pruitt said in a letter being distributed to local departments.

FOI Oklahoma Inc. asked Pruitt in late November to notify police departments that incident report information must be released when requested.

The Edmond Police Department and others in the state were refusing to provide incident reports, claiming they were part of files that wouldn't be released until investigations were completed.

That reasoning is at odds with the Oklahoma Open Records Act, which clearly distinguishes between incident reports and investigatory files. The statute states:
A. Law enforcement agencies shall make available for public inspection, if kept, the following records:

1. An arrestee description, including the name, date of birth, address, race, sex, physical description, and occupation of the arrestee;
2. Facts concerning the arrest, including the cause of arrest and the name of the arresting officer;
3. A chronological list of all incidents, including initial offense report information showing the offense, date, time, general location, officer, and a brief summary of what occurred;…”
(OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.8(A)(1-8))
The statute also states:
Access to records which, under the Oklahoma Open Records Act, would otherwise be available for public inspection and copying, shall not be denied because a public body or public official is using or has taken possession of such records for investigatory purposes or has placed the records in a litigation or investigation file.
(OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.20)
The state Legislature drew a clear distinction between incident report information that must be made available for inspection when requested and investigatory files that may be closed to the public, argued FOI Oklahoma Inc.

FOI Oklahoma's complaint wasn't the only one received by Pruitt regarding access to initial incident reports.

Pruitt said that during open government workshops this fall, his staff heard of police departments withholding the reports or delaying release "for up to a week after the incident occurred."

In Pruitt's letter Wednesday to the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police, he urged the organization to discuss the Open Records Act provisions "with police chiefs and law enforcement officers across the state to ensure they are aware of the statutes and can avoid unintended complications...."

The association will forward the letter to local police departments, Pruitt's spokeswoman Diane Clay said Sunday.

Such an explanation shouldn't be necessary because the Open Records Act is clear in this regard.

But Thank You to Pruitt for telling police to abide by the law.

Pruitt is a member of the FOI Oklahoma Inc. Board of Directors. The nonprofit is a statewide coalition advocating for open government.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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