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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Ind. Gov't. - "2 suicide cases in Columbus show how police disclosure policies vary across Indiana"

The subheading to Ryan Sabalow's long story dated Sept. 2nd in the Indianapolis Star is "Under state law, departments have discretion on releasing records." Here are some quotes:

[Kathy] Scheible asked the Columbus Police Department to open its files in her daughter’s case to members of the media. But — despite the case having been closed for three years — the department refused.

The decision alarms open-government advocates who say it illuminates a larger issue for Hoosiers who seek transparency and accountability from agencies that serve the public: Widespread abuse of a state law that gives police agencies broad authority to choose what records they will and will not release to the public — even when police conduct is called into question in a years-old case.

They say such actions, taken routinely by agencies across the state, undermine the public trust. And some call for a change in the law that’s meant to protect the integrity of open police investigations, not to shield police from scrutiny when cases are closed.

“It’s just a huge hole in the law,” said Gerry Lanosga, president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, “and it needs to be fixed.”

Columbus Police Department officials say Scheible has nothing to worry about; their investigation was thorough and above board. “There’s nothing to hide,” Police Chief Jason Maddix told The Star. To make his point, he showed The Star two suicide notes and a log that showed the deputy never entered the house.

But Scheible is not convinced, and fueling her suspicion is the department’s refusal to release other records in the case — keeping hidden, for example, detectives’ summaries and other forensic evidence.

More from the story:
Law enforcement officials interviewed by The Star say they need discretion to seal documents to protect witnesses and confidential informants and to keep their methods hidden from criminals and disgruntled members of the public.

Plus, they say, in death investigations in which no arrests were made, there’s always a chance that new information may someday lead to a suspect, so they need to keep secret the details only a killer would know.

At least 20 states have similar provisions in their open records law, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

But public records advocates say such laws are unnecessary. They note that a similar number of states and the federal government have laws requiring investigatory records be released once a case is closed. Those laws often take into account law enforcement concerns about tipping criminals off to surveillance techniques and identifying witnesses and confidential informants.

Florida is one such state that allows authorities to redact that information, though everything else must be released once a case is finalized.

There is much more in the long Star story.

ILB: Additionally, here is a March 18, 2010 ILB post that includes this quote from a FWJG story:

Except for the required daily disclosure of basic information on suspected crimes, traffic crashes and complaints, Indiana law enforcement agencies can label police reports, videos, 911 recordings and other records as “investigatory” and withhold them from public view indefinitely.

Defined simply as “information compiled in the course of the investigation of a crime,” investigatory records can be almost anything.

Finally, and this may be the most concerning, here is an April 16, 2013 post from the ILB about a bill that passed in the last session; the entry includes this quote from the new law's digest:
Public records. Allows a public agency to withhold from public disclosure records criminal intelligence information. Allows a public agency to refuse to confirm or deny the existence of investigatory records of law enforcement agencies or criminal intelligence information, if the fact of the existence of the information would: (1) impede or compromise an ongoing law enforcement investigation or endanger an individual; or (2) reveal information that would have a reasonable likelihood of threatening public safety.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on September 3, 2013 12:21 PM
Posted to Indiana Government