Public's Right to Know: Baltimore County Police Agree to Better Comply With Open Records Laws
As part of “Sunshine Week” in support of public access to open records, Patch did a document audit asking to see public police logs of arrests and incidents. After denying a reporter access, Baltimore County Police agreed to release daily police logs.
Baltimore County Police agreed to allow Patch reporters to view a daily log of arrests and incidents after an editor was denied access to public records in an audit to test compliance with Maryland’s open record laws.
This week, to mark Sunshine Week, a national effort organized by the American Society of News Editors that highlights the importance of accountability and public access to records, a Patch editor went to Precinct 1 and asked to see the daily log of arrests and activity–a resource traditionally used to find news stories and police-blotter columns.
Reporters and editors across the country conducted similar audits, as they have in years past. Among those that were publicized, Florida was one state seen as having improved in its compliance, according to news reports.
In Arbutus, an editor asked for access to a log book documenting daily arrests and incidents at Precinct 1, 901 Walker Ave.
The public’s right to inspect records, including electronic ones, is written into Maryland law. Arrest logs and other police records are public with a few exceptions, including those containing the names of minors and victims of sex-related crimes, and information that could compromise an ongoing investigation.
On Monday, dressed in street clothing and without identifying himself as a reporter, the Patch editor was declined access to the log book.
Members of the public–with media professionals being among them–have access to public records, according to state law.
“We don’t have anything like that here,” a Baltimore county desk officer told Patch. “That’s confidential. We can’t release that.”
On Tuesday, the editor was also denied access. That time, he wore a press pass and identified himself as a reporter.
On Wednesday, Patch editors asked for a meeting with county police officials.
Thursday afternoon, two Patch editors met for an hour at Precinct 1 with station commander Capt. John Spiroff, assistant precinct commander Lt. Nancy Storke and Lt. Robert McCullough, county police media director.
They agreed to allow Patch reporters access to daily police logs and other records.
“We’re not withholding information,” Spiroff said. “The policy of this station, and of the overall agency as well, is to give the press what they need, but also we have to make sure we’re not giving premature information that can cause unnecessary concern. We also have to protect victims. A lot of times these victims don’t want their names in the paper.”
In addition, the nature of a case can change during an investigation, which may not be reflected in the log book, Spiroff said.
In the past, police issued a summary called a “significant events report” to members of the press to be used for news stories and published police blotters. The report does not reflect the daily arrests and incidents that are contained in the log book.
McCullough explained that one problem with accessing records is a recent transition to computerization. “Arrest records are all electronic,” he said, and “not available for review.”
“That’s the downside of technology,” McCullough said.
Police departments in Annapolis and Frederick have websites with daily updated interactive maps that identify the location and releasable details about crime.
“Obviously, we follow the law” regarding public records, said Maj. Scott Baker, media relations director of the Annapolis Police Department. “I think we’re pretty open. We have nothing to hide.”
Storke indicated that desk officers who deal with the public and members of the media will be trained on the law and police department policy about open access to records.
“We don’t do anything intentionally to violate what the law says about the release of information, but sometimes it’s a matter of making sure our officers are informed,” Storke said. “We routinely do roll-call training to go over these issues about what is available to the public. We get new officers in all the time, so it’s something we usually do this time of year.
“We do remind officers routinely about the law, what is expected, and what they should release,” she said. “We do our best to educate our officers about what the law is.”
Open access to arrest reports, police logs and records is a fundamental right that is essential for public safety, according to Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“It’s a basic right that enhances safety and security,” she said. “It’s a way of engaging citizens in law enforcement efforts. It makes for better-informed citizens and a safer community. Anybody who argues otherwise is a moron.”