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Police don’t always follow the law when it comes to public information

The public informatidaily log is visible where it is displayed window (lower right) as records clerks (from left) Alexis Childress

The public information daily log is visible where it is displayed in a window (lower right) as records clerks (from left) Alexis Childress and Sandra Garza and Sgt. Carl Porter work with a customer's request at the window of the Bureau of Information at the Lake County Sheriff's Department in Crown Point, Ind. Tuesday November 20, 2012. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 26, 2012 6:06AM



Some they do and some they don’t

And some you just can’t tell

Supertramp

“Goodbye Stranger”

Any ordinary person should be able to walk into any police department in the state and find out what’s going on in their community, law enforcement-wise.

Indiana’s Public Access Law requires law enforcement agencies to keep a list of all “suspected crimes, accidents or complaints” and list specific facts that must be included in that daily log.

This list “shall be made available for inspection and copying” to any member of the public, the law states.

But it’s not one of the laws police agencies fully abide. Asking to see a daily log can be met with cooperation, but more often questions, challenges and even a rude rebuff.

Most police departments in Lake and Porter counties follow some aspects of the law. Others appear to ignore the requirement altogether.

In that vast gray area in between, the information provided at the front counters of a sampling of area departments varies from a detailed account to a single terse word.

For example, when a rural Porter County man chased home invaders down U.S. 30 to Hobart’s retail corridor on Aug. 8, a series of events, involving multiple police agencies, followed: a car crash, foot pursuits, gunfire and the apparent suicide of one of the suspects. Three people were handcuffed and stashed in squad cars in full view of hundreds of shoppers, diners and motorists. The suspects were taken to the Hobart Police Department and held there until charges were filed in Porter County.

In their daily log, Hobart police described the entire event as “shooting.” Other arrests and calls contained in the department’s daily log are similarly brief and vague.

By contrast, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department’s log lists complete information about the complainant, the type of call, which officers responded and how it was resolved. A simple dispatch to check on the legality of a man digging a well on his own property warranted a full paragraph. Lake County’s only omission is ages of victims.

When involved in a high-profile case, such as the “shooting,” Hobart police limit release of information. Detectives often refuse to provide names of those arrested until the person has been formally charged in court.

In the days after the “shooting” in Hobart, Lt. David Grissom flatly refused to provide names of the three suspects in custody, saying the case was still being investigated. The Post-Tribune then asked to see a copy of the department’s jail sheet, which by law must include all arrests and summons, with details of charges, officers involved and circumstances. But City Attorney Anthony DeBonis said the department’s jail sheet would not include the suspects’ names because they were not arrested. Other police agencies acknowledged the suspects were being held at the Hobart jail.

Indiana Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage, an appointee of the governor, said Hobart was wrong to deny the information.

“If they are arrested or summoned, then there’s a string of information that has to be provided in 24 hours,” Hoage said. “Even if they were trying to get cute by saying the Hobart police didn’t arrest them, they still took them to the jail or lockup. I don’t know how they’d justify not releasing the names after 24 hours,” Hoage said.

Renowned defense attorney Larry Rogers, who represents one of the suspects in the Aug. 8 home invasion, agrees Hobart misconstrued the facts.

“They were absolutely arrested,” Rogers said. “They may be trying to split hairs between getting arrested and being in custody, but police don’t have to tell somebody they’re under arrest for them to be arrested,” Rogers said.

In addition, Hobart’s daily log entry of “shooting” is clearly not in compliance with the law, Hoage said.

Chief Jeff White did not return messages left by the Post-Tribune seeking comment.

Some that do

Lake County Sheriff’s police make a daily log available at the Bureau of Information on the second floor of the sheriff’s building. The information includes everything required by law except ages, written in plain language, easy to read and understand. Sheriff John Buncich’s log is the clearest and most available in the area.

The Gary Police Department maintains a daily bulletin available at the records desk on the first floor of the Public Safety Facility. A member of the public can view contents of the folder, which includes printouts of police calls and case numbers. If a report is needed, clerks can locate it by the number provided. Front desk personnel, officers and others within the police station use the bulletin to help the public and also to locate information they need in the course of their work.

The Griffith Police Department keeps a log and faxes it daily to reporters, but deletes victims’ names and other information that is required by law. Department spokesman Detective Lt. Matthew Argadine said he followed the established practice, but would review Lake County Sheriff’s daily log and make adjustments. “We certainly want to do it the right way,” he said. The log is posted on a clipboard at the entrance of the police station daily.

The Porter County Sheriff’s Department provides a stack of daily reports, a practice that has continued for more than 30 years. Reporters can read through accounts of burglaries, arrests, batteries and other calls for service. Only proprietary information is deleted. Department spokesman Sgt. Larry LaFlower said he’s not aware of anyone except media representatives requesting to see the reports, but his office is willing to assist anyone.

“We get people coming in asking to see information about a certain person or an address. Our reporting system is really good, we can query a person, an address or even the unit number that went to a call. So when people ask for that kind of information, we are able to give it to them,” he said.

LaFlower also releases a daily roster of everyone brought to the Porter County Jail.

The Valparaiso Police Department makes a log available, but it’s in code. A man behind the counter at the police station entrance last month amiably provided a printout for all calls in a 24-hour period. The list shows the dates and times, the address, but the type of call and how it was resolved — such as an arrest — are not included. Chief Michael Brickner said anyone who needs more detailed information on any call can ask for it, but also said he would review the daily log and make changes so it complies with the Indiana law.

The Portage Police Department faxes a fairly comprehensive list of calls to area reporters. Sgt. Keith Hughes, public information officer, said he releases a list of all arrests and other crimes. The department’s chief clerk, Barbara Vaughan, handles requests for information from the general public. Vaughan said the public is welcome to make an information request to her or any clerk, but it rarely happens.

The St. John Police Department issues daily emails to reporters with calls for service at their police department, including complaints, firearms permit applications and other routine business. Their log includes details required by law.

Some that don’t

Lake Station civilians working at the front desk of the Police Department responded to a request to see the log with resistance, hostility and then a flat refusal.

The woman who sits at the “administration” window said information about daily calls was maintained by the dispatchers and asked, “Who are you?”

But Indiana law prohibits public servants from requiring identification to obtain public record.

“So it’s against the law to ask who you are but we’re supposed to give you all this information?” the woman asked. She said only a lieutenant was authorized to release information, and he was in court all week.

After the unsuccessful visit, the Post-Tribune filed a complaint with Pubic Access Counselor Hoage. The city failed to respond, and the state ruled Lake Station had violated the law.

Lake Station Chief Kevin Garber later apologized and said employees have since been informed how to handle such encounters in the future. “I wasn’t aware there was supposed to be a log,” said Garber, who has been chief for less than a year.

All new chiefs are required to attend a week-long certification class within one year of being appointed. Lt. Steven Guthrie, an instructor at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in Plainfield, said chiefs receive an overview of the public access law during the class.

Some you just can’t tell

Merrillville police for years have maintained two folders containing what administrators believe to be reports of interest to the area’s newspapers “as a courtesy,” Chief Joseph Petruch said. But asking to see the log as an ordinary member of the public was met with questions.

“Are you with the newspaper? Are you a landlord? Because then we can show you,” said a woman behind the counter. How about just a regular person? “Oh no, not the public,” she said, adding she’d been working there several years and was unfamiliar with the concept of a daily log for the public.

Later, Petruch said he was sorry about the confusion.

But the same day, a new Post-Tribune reporter who asked to see the folder left without even a peek.

“Before she hands out the file, she wants to make sure it’s for the paper. We do it as a courtesy,” the chief said. A day after that, reporters were told the policy to view public record was changing. Town attorney John Bushemi said he will review the law and work with the chief to ensure public information is available in the required format.

Hobart Chief White complained to a Post-Tribune editor that maintaining a daily log is cumbersome and time-consuming. Hoage said the law has been around, in some form, since 1983, and police agencies have no excuse to be unaware. If the task is overwhelming, Hoage said, cities should approach their elected state officials to seek a change. “I don’t think it’s too great a burden,” Hoage commented. “It’s not rocket science.”

Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, recently wrote a column about attempts to obtain public information from police. He notes that authors of the law intended that authorities should help the public obtain the facts they seek. “That fits the intent of the legislature that ‘providing persons with the information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officials and employees.’”



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