By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Local law enforcement agencies are expanding the amount of information released to the public after reviewing department policies and Montana open records laws.
Under the new policies, Havre police will provide the public with access to initial incident reports, will no longer omit sex crimes from the police dispatch log, and will place a copy of the dispatch log in the lobby of the department.
The Hill County Sheriff's Office will also begin providing initial incident reports to the public in the near future, Sheriff Greg Szudera said.
Both departments decided to change their policies in response to a series of stories by newspapers across the state, including the Havre Daily News, detailing a statewide effort to test local governments' compliance with freedom of information laws. During the audit, which was performed in June, citizens requested a list of documents from a number of government offices. The audit showed that county sheriff's offices were the worst in adhering to the law, failing to release public information more than 40 percent of the time.
The Havre Police Department changed its policy about omitting sex offenses from its dispatch log - a list of the calls the department responded to in the previous 24 hours - after the Havre Daily News threatened to sue the department for failing to produce records about sexual assaults in Havre.
The initial incident reports, which detail information about alleged offenses, will have to be written by officers in addition to the investigave report they file for police records, Havre Police Chief Kevin Olson said. Officers will begin writing the initial incident reports sometime next month, he said.
"We're going to try to incorporate that into our operation over the next four to six weeks," he said. There's a little training that we have to do in-house. It's not something that we can just do right away."
The training will tell officers what information is considered public under the law, and what material is confidential criminal justice information.
The new reports will be time-consuming, Olson said.
"It's going to increase the amount of time the officers spend preparing the reports, but there's no real other alternative," he said.
The initial incident reports will not include the names of victims of crimes against persons, like robbery or assault, or the names of suspects unless the suspect has been charged or is at large and may pose a threat to the public, Olson said.
Olson said he believes a 1988 opinion by state Attorney General Mike Greeley gives police the authority to withhold that information.
According to John Shontz, lead attorney for the Montana FOI Hotline, only the names of victims of of sexual assaults are private and can be withheld by police. Also, he said, the names of people identified as offenders in calls to police are public information.
Olson said he plans to ask current Attorney General Mike McGrath for a formal opinion on both questions.
Previously, the dispatch log was the only document describing police activities provided to the public. The dispatch log shows when and where officers respond to a call for assistance, and whether an arrest was made.
The Havre Daily News questioned the completeness of the department's dispatch log in September when it learned that numerous sexual assaults had been reported to Havre police in the prior 18 months but apparently had not been recorded on the dispatch log.
The newspaper on Sept. 29 requested that the department turn over copies of all of the initial incident reports for sexual assaults reported between July 2002 and September 2003, including the date and time of the alleged offense, as well as a brief description of the incident.
A week later, City Attorney Mary VanBuskirk denied the request on behalf of the Police Department.
"It is our information that The Havre Daily News has received all public criminal justice information allowed by Montana law," the letter said. "Specifically, the City has provided its initial incident reports and arrest reports."
On Oct. 24, Shontz, on behalf of the Daily News, sent a letter to VanBuskirk threatening to sue if the reports were not provided by Oct. 28. Shontz's letter noted that department officials had admitted they routinely omit mention of reported sexual assaults from the dispatch log.
The Police Department released the reports Oct. 27. They revealed that Havre police have investigated 32 reported sex crimes since June 2002. In many cases, the complaints were determined to be unfounded or the alleged victim declined to cooperate with police. Five of the investigations led to criminal charges.
Olson said that after reviewing state law, he had decided the public has a right to information about reported sexual assaults in Havre. The previous policy was intended to protect the identities of sexual assault victims and to protect the reputations of those who may have been falsely accused, he said.
"It was never our intention to hide information from the public," he said. "Our primary concern was to the victims and to the accused."
He added: "It was a mistake. But the problem has been rectified."
Olson also decided that the dispatch log - which is made available to local media - did not provide all of the information considered to be public under Montana law. However, the investigative reports filled out by officers often contains confidential criminal justice information.
The department's new system will include an initial incident report that provides the information the public is entitled to, but withholds confidential criminal justice information.
"We strongly believe in the public's right to know," Olson said. "It has never been our policy to conceal information from anyone who requests it."
Sheriff Szudera said the Sheriff's Office has also instituted new policies to make sure the public has access to information it is entitled to under law.
"I plan on following the law and getting that information out not only to the press, but to the public upon their demand," Szudera said.
Szudera said training from the state Attorney General's Office about freedom of information issues will be critical. The Montana Association of Counties, the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and the state Attorney General's Office will coordinate a training program that will educate law enforcement about public information laws.
"We're looking forward to getting some training from the Attorney General's Office," he said. "I don't think there's a sheriff out there that's going to intentionally go against the law - it's a matter of getting everyone on the same page."
Law enforcement agencies have an obligation to adhere to freedom of information laws, Szudera said.
"The bottom line is that it's in our constitution of the state of Montana, and that's the most important thing," he said.