Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Unfit, but Unknown?

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Unfit, but Unknown?

Article excerpt

Bill intended to protect police also would shield their misconduct from public view

Florida's public records law is one of the broadest in the nation.

It allows citizens to access every corner of their government, from the payroll of state employees to personnel files of City Hall workers to internal affairs records of police officers who commit misconduct.

But that law could suffer a deep blow if two Tampa Bay lawmakers get their way.

There are two bills working their way through the Florida Legislature that would forbid the public from knowing the employment history of police and other law enforcement officials -- making it all but impossible to know whether someone has gotten in trouble on the job.

The proposals drew outrage from open-government advocates who called it "shocking" and "absurd."

"This is a terrible bill," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. "It's so bad it's hard to describe."

Normally, certain information about lawmen is protected. Things like home addresses and phone numbers are exempt from disclosure to protect officers from retaliation. But the latest step goes far beyond the current law -- effectively shielding officers from scrutiny by the public, open-records advocates say.

"I don't think the public necessarily needs to know everything about our police officers and public attorneys," said Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who drafted the bill in the house.

There is a parallel measure proposed by Latvala's father, Jack, a senator from St. Petersburg in the running to become senate president in 2017.

Chris Latvala said he proposed the bill to protect police officers and their families from threats and identity theft. He said Clearwater Sgt. Stephen Wannos had his identity stolen recently after someone in his department mistakenly released documents with personal information, including his address and Social Security number.

"I didn't do the bill to help the bad apples," Chris Latvala said. "I did the bill to give protection to the 99 percent of law enforcement officers that are good and courageous people. …

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