Sheriff defends records access

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 8, 2003

When an anonymous citizen recently attempted to get a copy of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department’s incident reports from the previous night, Chief Deputy Randy Pugh sent him packing empty-handed.

Nothing doing, Pugh told the man. Those records are not open to the public.

The same man received a far different reaction when he asked for a copy of the latest Dallas County Commission minutes from Brenda Gomes, the administrative assistant for the Dallas County Emergency Management Agency who handles such things.

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When asked to hand over a copy of the minutes for the most recent commission meeting, Gomes complied without hesitation. “They’re public records,” she explained. “They’re for everybody.”

Unbeknownst to either Pugh or Gomes, the man was a participant in a statewide survey to test the availability of public records in Alabama.

Earlier this month the survey was published and the responses of various agencies made public around the state and beyond, which prompted Probate Judge Johnny Jones to quip, “I told Randy we were going to have to send him to public relations school. And we’re going to let Brenda teach the class.”

The public records survey began as a project of the Alabama Center for Open Government, which was formed three years ago at the University of Alabama. The Alabama Associated Press Managing Editors Association, Alabama Press Association and Alabama Broadcasters Association joined in the effort.

Surveyors requested public records in every county. In all, more than 600 requests were made.

While a 1923 Alabama law established every citizen’s right to inspect and copy public records, the two widely differing responses here in Dallas County illustrate just how difficult it can be to apply that law uniformly.

Part of the difficulty stems from the proliferation of court rulings and attorney general opinions that have established numerous exceptions to the law – although some of those exceptions are open to interpretation.

For example, the courts have uniformly upheld that the minutes of virtually all public bodies – such as the Dallas County Commission or Selma City Council – are public record and should be made available to anyone who asks to see them.

The rules regarding law enforcement incident reports, however, are a bit more murky.

“We don’t give ’em out,” Dallas County Sheriff Harris Huffman Jr. declares flatly.

Huffman cites a number of state attorney general opinions that allow for three broad reasons to keep police reports confidential:

The Alabama Uniform Incident/Offense Report is a two-sided document that is used by all law enforcement bodies in the state.

The front side contains information about the victim or complainant, including his or her Social Security number, address, phone number, height, weight, date of birth, employer, and employer’s address and phone number. It also includes the type of incident that took place, as well as descriptions of any stolen or damaged property.

The back side contains the name and description of any suspects. It also includes the name and personal information of any witnesses, as well as a narrative of what they might have seen or heard.

Because the courts have ruled that law enforcement investigative reports need not be made public, the backside of the incident report is generally protected from disclosure. However, the state attorney general’s office has consistently offered the opinion that the front side of the report should be available for public inspection.

At first glance that appears to settle the matter.

But Huffman points out that the attorney general has further opined that information on the front side is not subject to public disclosure when it could result in “potential harm to innocent persons” or be “detrimental to the best interests of the public.”

That’s a lot of wiggle room.

“I’m not the only law enforcement officer in the state who has a problem with releasing information on the front side of that report,” Huffman says.

Huffman cites rape and burglary as just two examples of cases in which releasing information on the front side of an incident report might be considered harmful to “innocent persons.”

Almost everyone agrees that publishing the name of a rape victim against her will serves no legitimate purpose and only subjects her to further needless humiliation – and most news media today have policies against doing so.

But there is less agreement concerning the publishing of the name and address of burglary victims, along with an itemized list of missing items – all information that is available on the front side of the incident report.

“If you’re the victim of a burglary and it gets printed, you’re just asking to be hit again,” Huffman explains. “That’s because most homeowners today have insurance and burglars know that within 30 to 45 days of being hit you’re probably gonna go out and buy all new stuff.”

Huffman also points out that with the amount of personal information available on the front side of an incident report – including the victim’s Social Security number – the report could conceivably even be used to assist in identity theft.

Nor is it always the victim who files an incident report. If an observer to an incident files a report and the information is made public, Huffman says, the perpetrator could obtain a copy of the report and be waiting for them by the time they got home.

Some law enforcement agencies attempt to sidestep such potential problems by blacking out any information that could be used for harmful purposes before releasing the front side of the report. But, contends Huffman, if all the potentially damaging information were blacked out, “there wouldn’t be anything left.”

“When you talk about releasing records, it’s just not as easy as some people seem to think it is,” the sheriff says. “I’m going to protect the victim at all costs. It’s bad enough if you’re the victim of a crime – you shouldn’t have to suffer twice. Part of my job is to protect you from any further harm. I’m not trying to hide anything from anybody. I’m just trying to look out for the victims.”