Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Law Worries Journalists, Confuses Police Some Crime Reports May Be Kept Secret

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Law Worries Journalists, Confuses Police Some Crime Reports May Be Kept Secret

Article excerpt

NEXT TIME THE school is vandalized in Hallsville, Mo., or a neighbor reports a burglary in that town, don't expect the police department to tell. The town's chief is keeping mum about crime.

The police there are reacting to a new state law - a one-sentence change in Missouri's Sunshine Law - that kicked in Aug. 28. The law says that "investigative reports of all law enforcement agencies are closed records until such time as an arrest is made."

Some police across Missouri wonder just what constitutes an "investigative report." The law does not define it. Is it the first report a policeman makes when he gets a call for a shooting or car accident? Or is it everything that comes later - the interviews with witnesses, the cop's hunches, the suspects, the tips?

"Our city lawyer is going to school to get it sorted out, and until then, I'm not giving anything out," said Police Chief Larry Murrell, whose community of about 800 is north of Columbia.

Newspaper publisher Charles A. Hedberg, whose Fireside Guard covers Hallsville, said: "They're thumbing their noses at the public. If there are crooks running around in their town, the public needs to know about it."

Murrell is clearly the exception. A sampling of police chiefs in the St. Louis metropolitan area found none withholding reports of incidents. Some chiefs, like Calvin Dierberg of Ladue, are leaning the way of Murrell - but have not acted yet to limit what the public sees.

"The `investigative report' thing is tricky," Dierberg said.

The sentence that is causing the confusion among police and worry among news media watchdogs was added by Rep. Craig Hosmer, D-Springfield, as an amendment to a bill designed to help victims of crime.

The sponsor of the original bill, Sen. Joe Moseley, D-Columbia, acknowledged that because police departments are interpreting the law in a variety of ways, the law might need to be revamped next session.

The attorney general's office has been asked to write its interpretation of the law. And Gov. Mel Carnahan, who signed the bill, has since indicated that it was not his intention to limit the public's access to information about crime.

Hazelwood Police Chief Carl Wolf said: "The worst part about the law is they didn't define investigative reports."

Wolf thinks of investigative reports as the follow-up reports on an unsolved case, the detectives' hunches in writing, the leads from tipsters that point to suspects, the exhaustive notes about what tips dried up. …

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