Q&A: Withholding police reports

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From the Elwood Call-Leader:

Q: The Elwood mayor has been withholding police reports on non-arrest situations, such as the report of thefts, etc. Readers have contacted us expressing their frustration when the theft of their lawn mower hasn’t appeared in our daily crime report.

One theft victim asked the police why her report wasn’t in the newspaper; she was told the mayor has decided to keep certain reports out of the paper so that it doesn’t make our city “look bad.” What’s your advice on how we should proceed?

A: The mayor’s decision to withhold daily log or report information required to be made available by the police is a violation of the Access to Public Records Act.

IC 5-14-3-5(c) sets out what a law enforcement agency must make available to the public for inspection or copying within 24 hours of a request for assistance.

The mayor has no authority to withhold items from the daily log.

One of the policy reasons for this government transparency is forewarning others of crimes occurring so that they can act to protect themselves.

I suggest the newspaper ask for a meeting with the mayor and police chief. The newspaper can remind the two of the state’s requirement and your concern that items have not been included in the daily report.

Hopefully, they’ll commit to following the law.

Follow-up question: I have since spoken with a veteran city police officer, who said that since Elwood’s police dispatch was moved to Anderson, the calls/reports are county matters.

She said that is why we only get arrests and not complaints or reports. Is that allowed?

A: No. The county’s dispatch log isn’t the daily log or report mandated by the Access to Public Records Act.

It might contain some of the information required by the statute but probably not everything.

Each law enforcement agency is responsible for the daily log under IC 5-14-3-5(c).

Since most police departments (like everyone else) detest extra paperwork, they usually take a copy of the incident report, redact information they may need to keep confidential (name of suspect, Social Security numbers, etc.) and make the blacked out copy available for inspection and/or copying.

The incident report generally includes the description of what happened required by the Access to Public Records Act.

Note: An incident report is an investigatory record, so the police don’t have to release it. However, they have the discretion to release it. They often do this so that someone on their staff doesn’t have to recreate information required under the Access to Public Records Act.

To recap, each law enforcement agency in a county, regardless of whether they are all dispatched through the sheriff’s department, is responsible for maintaining a daily log or report under the Access to Public Records Act.

If your local department has confused the “daily log or report” with the dispatch log, then I could see where they might think they’re off the hook for the creation of the record, but that is incorrect.

Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.

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