Public access continues to diminish

The Associated Press last month took its fight to Capitol Hill in an attempt to improve the public’s access to records.

AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser testified before the Senate Judiciary hearing on open records laws that despite promises of greater transparency by the Obama administration, most agencies are not abiding by their legal obligations under open records laws.

The problem affects not just journalists, and not just federal records. It affects everyone.

Last month our newspaper made a request with the city of Warren for release of dash camera video that was recorded when a city police officer on May 27 shot a suspect in Warren.

We made a written request for the video footage with police Chief Eric Merkel and city Law Director Greg Hicks.

In addition to sending the written request, we’ve left three phone messages with Hicks. He has not responded.

Merkel did respond. He told us the video was turned over to Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, or BCI, and we needed to check with them.

While we believe the city is the holder of the public record who always should retain responsibility for that record, we decided we’d play the game and contact BCI. BCI responded that it is reviewing our request and urged us to check back with them every two weeks.

Now it’s true that under Ohio law, records created during a criminal investigation are exempt from public release until the investigation concludes.

But how is it possible that a video that was recording an incident as it was unfolding can be considered “investigatory work product”? Isn’t it true that it was created during the incident and not during the subsequent investigation?

To further add to the secrecy, no information has been released on the condition of the man who was shot. Under HIPAA laws, hospitals now refuse to release patient conditions to the media, and police, who clearly have information on whether or not the patient is still hospitalized or has been released, refuse to say.

When journalists make requests for public records, they are asking not because we simply hope to sell newspapers or attract viewers. We ask because it is our duty to ask on behalf of you, the public.

Although last month’s U.S. Senate committee testimony by Kaiser was intended to focus on national records, it also detailed the many problems journalists and the public face when seeking access to public documents on all levels.

“Non-responsiveness is the norm. The reflex of most agencies is to withhold information, not to release, and often there is no recourse for a requester other than pursuing costly litigation,” Kaiser said. “This is a broken system that needs reform. Simply stated, government agencies should not be able to avoid the transparency requirements of the law in such continuing and brazen ways.”

Under the law, journalists and the public can compel the government to turn over copies of local, state and federal records.

Anyone who seeks information through the law is generally supposed to get it unless it falls under specific exemptions.

Those that have taken oaths to uphold the law should do just that, including the laws that spell out that public records are exactly that – public.