Officers in Need of Education on Law, Officials Say

Article excerpt

A massive survey of compliance with the Oklahoma Open Records Act illustrates the need for more education of local police agencies, the state's chief legal officer says.

"One of the upshots of this survey is that it may be time to do another round of regional seminars," Attorney General Drew Edmondson said of 16 regional meetings his office conducted in 1998 to explain what information should be released to the media under the 1985 Open Records Act.

Sheriff's offices and local police departments in many of the state's 77 counties fared poorly in the survey of citizen access to government records.

One in four city and county law enforcement agencies did not comply with requests for public documents, such as arrest records, this summer by reporters for The Daily Oklahoman and the Tulsa World.

"Obviously we're disappointed that a law that has been on the books since the 1980s was so flagrantly ignored by many law enforcement officers," said Joe Worley, executive editor of the World.

Sue Hale, executive editor of The Oklahoman, said that citizens are the ones who are harmed by denying press access to public records.

"The First Amendment really belongs to every citizen of this country and that's why it's so important for the public to see what its government is doing and to be able to individually have access to the records," Hale said. "Every time an official denies access to a member of the media they are actually denying access to the public."

The Oklahoma Press Association and Freedom of Information Oklahoma Inc. also took part in the project and generally found that local and state government agencies -- other than sheriff's and police departments -- usually complied with records requests.

John Walsh, executive director of the Oklahoma Sheriff's Association, said he wasn't surprised by the survey results. He said there "has always been a lot of confusion" about the law.

"If they're going to err, they're going to err on the side of deferring the decision-making process to the district attorney," Walsh said of sheriff's departments.

Jim Cox, executive director of Oklahoma Association of Police Chiefs, said he was a little surprised "that there would not be more of a full understanding of those requirements and the ability to respond to it. …