Our Views: Police should uphold Wisconsin's open records law

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

A troubling tsunami of police secrecy is rolling across America's Dairyland.

In our area, this wave first swamped the public's right to know in Edgerton. Police Chief Tom Klubertanz announced in May that his department would release no details other than last names of those in official police reports.

Since then, redaction policies have slammed public disclosure in Milton, Whitewater, Elkhorn and Delavan, among more than 60 municipalities statewide, as The Gazette's Neil Johnson reported Aug. 31. When police spend time poring over reports to black out details, they're doing nothing to ensure public safety. Instead, they're smothering the public's right to know who got arrested, when and for what—and more.

This storm stems from a Palatine, Ill., lawsuit in which a man argued that police violated his privacy by leaving a parking ticket with his name, address and other personal information gathered from the Illinois motor vehicle database on his windshield. A court ruled against the village, which has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That case has municipal insurance companies running scared and advising police to withhold such information. Ironically, while agencies across the Badger State are capitulating to that pressure, Wisconsin Newspaper Association Director Beth Bennett says no Illinois police departments have bolstered redacting policies.

Now, this cloud is hanging over Janesville. Deputy Police Chief Dan Davis says Cities and Villages Municipal Insurance “strongly” suggests the city withhold identities.

If Janesville police follow that advice, the next time some Smith gets busted for drunken driving, it could cast suspicion on each of the hundreds of Smiths living here. How fair is that? And how can the public monitor daily actions of law enforcement and be sure police aren't abusing their authority?

As Madison Attorney Bob Dreps, an expert in media law, told The Gazette: “The whole point of the open records law is to hold government officials accountable to what they do. What value is an accident report to anyone without names? There's no public accountability without names, no oversight of our public officials. How do we know what they're doing is appropriate if everything is anonymous?”

Besides, police liability fears ignore the Wisconsin Open Records Law, which has served this state admirably for decades and has been affirmed by landmark court rulings.

Because the Palatine case involved the Illinois motor vehicle database, the Delavan Police Department is only redacting information pulled from the state's database. In other words, if Delavan busts two brothers and culls information from one's driver's license but the other doesn't have his license with him and police get information from the state, authorities withhold the latter information from public view. While we appreciate the effort, that's obviously an inconsistent and unfair approach.

One Wisconsin newspaper, the New Richmond Times, has sued the city of New Richmond for restricting public information.

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is doing no one any favors amid this storm of controversy. While he advised agencies not to limit release of state database information after the Illinois case surfaced, he now says he won't comment until the New Richmond case is resolved.

Thanks, J.B.

Despite this copout, which might leave the public in the dark for years until that case plays out, it's time for law enforcement agencies to have the guts to stand strong against this wave of secrecy. These public servants wear badges. It's their duty to uphold the law, including our tried-and true open records statute. Stop shirking that responsibility.

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