Public records: Police
Out of nine law enforcement agencies across Washington, Noble, Morgan and Monroe counties, all eventually provided public records requested but within much different time frames and with a few possible violations of Ohio’s Sunshine Law.
For most requests, there was not immediate turn around. Most were granted the following day, with a copy of the document for view, while some requests took a little longer. Requests for police chief salaries had the quickest turnaround, those being in Beverly, Caldwell, Marietta and New Matamoras, with same day
responses. Slower turnarounds happened with police departments for incident reports, with Marietta’s being the next day and Belpre, the state patrol and sheriff’s offices being nearly a week later. Caldwell’s department made incident reports available four days later. Departments in Morgan and Monroe counties provided records for incidents and police chief salaries the same day.
In April, The Marietta Times participated in a state-wide audit sponsored by the Coalition for Open Government to learn the ease of accessing government documents that are open to the public. As a part of that audit, records were requested by the Times from the Marietta Police Department and Caldwell Police Department. In addition to those, other law enforcement agencies later audited by The Marietta Times were the Belpre Police Department, Beverly Police Department, Lowell Police Department, the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
Monroe and Morgan counties were also audited by other AP members and incident reports were granted in both counties for the Village of McConnelsville Police Department and the Woodsfield Police Department.
Auditors included both employees of The Marietta Times and non-employees on behalf of the paper. None identified themselves as members of the media, in order to determine how easily members of the general public could receive records.
Of the nine law enforcement agencies from which records were requested, all complied. Records requested were incident reports from the shift of officers that had most recently filed them. There were also requests to receive the police chief’s salaries for each department, some of which were obtained through city government.
Salaries of chiefs from Caldwell and Beverly were supplied from the city immediately, and Marietta’s information was supplied the next day.
According to the auditor, at first the Marietta police clerk appeared suspicious and confused by the request, asked why the request was being made, then said she did not know how to obtain that information. After taking contact information, a call was made the next day that the record was available to view or pick up with a different clerk.
A portion of Ohio’s Sunshine Law requires that the public office or person responsible for public records should not ask about why a request is being made.
Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite said that while sometimes police staff may look suspicious of a request, that might not be the case.
“It’s not unusual (for us) to get public records requests,” he said. “One thing that can clear up confusion is if we know exactly what you want. People tend to be vague about it…It could be a criminal complaint or traffic crashes. We also issue incident reports for parking tickets.”
The Beverly Police Department does not always have an officer in the department’s offices but told the auditor the records would be emailed. The record was eventually supplied after nearly a week had passed and a follow-up phone call made.
The Caldwell Police Department’s police chief is part-time, so the records weren’t made immediately available because they are stored in his locked office. A call to the chief the same day of the record requests revealed that records can be viewed when the chief is in the office on Fridays.
At the Belpre Police Department, it took about six days for the records to be made available. The auditor responsible for this record said that after receiving the record there was a $9 charge for printing them, even though she had asked only to inspect them. Upon asking the clerk to inquire if there was a way to view the record for free, she was told there wasn’t.
The Sunshine Law requires that public records be made available at no cost to the public during business hours for viewing. Copies often require a charge.
Belpre Police Clerk Kim Martin said after the audit that records are made available to anyone just wanting “to stand there and look at them” for no charge. She said she did not tell the auditor there was not a way to view the record.
“I’m here to help if somebody needs to look at something,” Martin said, adding that requests for records are few and far between at the police station.
Records requested of the Ohio State Highway Patrol had to go through the Columbus office. A call revealed the records could be sent via email, and records were received six days after the request had been made.
In the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, the employee responsible for handling public records was on vacation at the time of the record request and another employee was called in to assist. She said that she didn’t want to release anything she wasn’t supposed to because she doesn’t regularly handle public records and mentioned that incident reports were not public record.
The record was to be supplied about a week later to view in the office, after personnel there asked the auditor to first meet with the sheriff.
Sheriff Larry Mincks said there are several people trained to handle public records in the sheriff’s office.
“Myself and general staff attend the training at the attorney general’s office,” he said.
Though Mincks asked questions when he spoke to the auditor, he said it was to narrow down her request, not to find out why the records were requested.
“I explained (to the auditor) very carefully what was available and what wasn’t available,” Mincks said. “You can’t say, ‘I want to see all records of the last shift.’ We don’t know where to start with that; we have to start narrowing it down with what we can supply. If it’s an ongoing investigation, it’s not public record…(The auditor) didn’t know (specifically) what she was looking for.”
Waite said that in order for the public to get any desired information, precision is key.
“Some people get upset that we’re asking questions,” Waite said. “Sometimes to get what you want we have to ask questions.”