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Milton will stop blacking out police reports

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Neil Johnson
April 2, 2014

MILTON—After months of blacking out personal identifying information from police reports and making the documents nearly useless to the public and the news media, one city is putting a stop to the practice.

The Milton City Council voted Wednesday to approve an ordinance that directs the police department to stop redacting from police reports people’s addresses, ages and other personal identifying information that is available through the state’s Department of Transportation databases.

The decision flies in the face of a recommendation by the city’s liability insurance carrier last year that the city redact police reports to comply with the insurance company’s slant on a two-year-old federal ruling involving the Driver Privacy Protection Act.

The company argues release of DOT information on people is a violation of privacy under a 2012 federal appeals court ruling in Chicago that involved the Driver Privacy Protection Act and a parking ticket placed on an Illinois resident’s car, and that the practice of releasing un-redacted police reports creates liability.

In that ruling, the court found the village’s police department had violated a man’s privacy and the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act by placing a parking ticket on his vehicle overnight. The ticket had all of the man’s personal information printed on it, including his social security number, according to court papers.

In a recommendation to the council Wednesday, City Administrator Jerry Schuetz said he believes the insurance company’s advice sidesteps Wisconsin Open Records law, and that the city should “err on the side of openness and return to the release of un-redacted Department of Transportation (police report) records.”

Schuetz’s recommendation came after a ruling in March by a St. Croix County judge that the federal DPPA ruling out of Chicago does not apply to Wisconsin Open Records law, and that municipalities are not required to redact police reports under the federal ruling.

The judge ruled that the federal court’s decision—one based on police officers indiscriminately leaving a parking ticket with a person’s full personal information in public view in a Chicago suburb—does not directly apply to or even address requests for police reports or other police records under Wisconsin Open Records law.

The ruling came out of a lawsuit by the New Richmond News, a newspaper that sued the city of New Richmond for its choice to redact police reports under the federal DPPA ruling. The paper argued that redacting violated the state’s Open Records law.

The Milton City Council unanimously approved Schuetz’s recommendation Wednesday, with alderwoman Anissa Welch, boiling down the council’s shared sentiments on open government and public access to city police records. 

“I have difficulties having an insurance company tell us how open and transparent our own government should be,” Welch said.

The decision means that Milton police will stop redacting personal identifying information from police reports. For instance, if someone is arrested for drunken driving, the city’s official reports would include their name, age, address and other information that would clearly identify them.

In recent months, some departments, including the Janesville Police Department, have bucked insurers’ recommendations and refused to redact reports, saying the public’s right to know outweighs a federal ruling based on an incident in a Chicago suburb.

Schuetz put it another way.

“Our finances are a matter of public record, as is the work done by our employees in all departments. Providing the public with as much information as possible is the legislative intent of the Wisconsin Open Records Law,” Schuetz said in his recommendation.

Other police agencies, such as the Edgerton Police Department, no longer include some personal identifying details on reports, citing the federal DPPA ruling and recommendations by municipal insurers.

Schuetz noted in his recommendation that Milton rides a razor’s edge of liability regardless of a decision on redaction.

Under its policy, the city would have to absorb $25,000 in liability before the insurance company became liable, Schuetz said. According to its municipal insurer, Cities and Villages Mutual Insurance, fines for violation of DPPA law can total $2,500.

On the other hand, fines for violation of the state’s open records law can total $100.

City officials said they believe that media outlets could become more aggressive in suing over police report redactions in the wake of the St. Croix County ruling.

“We’re damned if you do or you don’t,” council member Nancy Lader said.

Schuetz estimated the police department processes between 50 and 150 open records requests annually. He said the current practice of redacting information under its insurer’s recommendations costs “thousands” of dollars and could be viewed as “overly cautious.”

Cities and Villages Mutual has said that failure to comply with its recommendations could put the city at risk for losing coverage, Schuetz indicated.

Welch said the city could always opt to use a different carrier. She suggested that if the city or other municipalities left Cities and Villages, it could prompt the company to look twice at its practice of trying to dictate public policy. 

“I'd rather have the power of the press over the power of insurance companies,” Welch said.

Schuetz told the council that it could modify the ordinance if there was an appeal to the St. Croix County ruling.



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