By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association
Frustrated Indianapolis newspaper reporters and broadcasters met with city officials representing Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the office of Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry.
The subject: reduced information available on crime reports after IMPD implemented a new computer reporting process. The city offered the meeting to address media concerns.
This isn’t the first time changes in incident reporting have impacted the public’s ability to know what law enforcement is doing in Indiana.
I’m sure it won’t be the last because police departments will always be looking at more efficient ways to deal with paperwork so officers can spend more time on the street.
I’ll give Indianapolis officials credit for trying to address the issue and saying the right things. They expressed a desire to give the media as much information as possible.
But the reason they were in this position appears to be because someone representing the public’s interest wasn’t at the table of stakeholders when the new computer system was selected.
It’s a lesson publishers and editors across the state can benefit from if they are paying attention when local law enforcement agencies move to upgrade technology, whether dispatching or software for officers to use in patrol cars.
Newspapers need to remind law enforcement officials that new equipment and software purchasing decisions should examine whether it impacts their ability to comply with obligations under the Access to Public Records Act to create daily reports on police activity.
Editors and police beat reporters should have a copy of IC 5-14-3-5, which clearly spells out what information must be made available to the public when an arrest is made, when someone is jailed, and when calls for assistance are made to the police.
Journalists should be prepared to correct the misconceptions police may have about their obligations.
During the meeting, Indianapolis’ corporate counsel initially said victims’ names don’t have to be reported. The attorney later corrected herself – because the law requires the name and age of victims to be part of the report to the public, with an exception for sex crimes.
Many police officers believe the names of juvenile victims should be kept confidential.
But the law doesn’t differentiate between children and adult crime victims.
The confusion probably exists because juvenile crime laws have a presumption that the alleged delinquents’ names be confidential.
News staff should note that the police can legally chose to identify juveniles accused of committing crimes, so don’t be afraid to ask.
The release of the information would fall under IC 31-39-4-8. It’s at the chief’s or sheriff’s discretion instead of a required release.
A miniscule description of what happened when police are called isn’t sufficient under the law.
The daily log or report of suspected crimes, accidents or complaints must include “the factual circumstances surrounding the incident.”
I tell police officers if their superior asked them what happened – their answer would be what the public should expect to see in the daily report.
Granted, they would tell the superior the name of suspects, but they don’t have to make that publicly known yet. That’s understandable because police don’t want suspects to flee before they develop a case to the point of asking a judge for arrest warrants.
The most common problem I see under the daily log/report statute is skimpy narratives provided to reporters.
During the meeting, HSPA suggested what may be a simple way for IMPD to fix its problem with shrinking narratives for the media. We’ll see if it works out that way.
HSPA also shared copies of the “Handbook on Indiana’s Public Access Laws” to reporters and news directors at the meeting.
IC 5-14-3-5 is found on Page 42 of the handbook, so do your homework and read it. If your newsroom doesn’t have the handbook, let HSPA know and we’ll send you some copies.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.