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News media win greater access to Ohio police personnel files

By The Associated Press,
freedomforum.org staff
10.01.01

A federal judge in Columbus ruled that police must prove that releasing information from officers' personnel files poses a threat to the officers or their families before withholding it from the public.

Officials in Ohio had used a 1998 federal appeals court opinion to block the release of a police officer's home address, the identities of family members and disciplinary files.

Judge George Smith ruled Sept. 27 that the health and safety of the democracy takes precedent over the health and safety of law enforcement officials and their families.

"To deny members of the press access to public information ... would silence the most important critics of governmental activity," Smith wrote.

The case originated with three undercover narcotics officers from Columbus who sought a court order blocking the city from releasing personal information from their files.

The city had previously provided an edited version of the personnel records to a criminal defense lawyer who represented a member of a Columbus street gang. The officers contended the release of the records jeopardized them and their families.

Ten news organizations from Ohio opposed the officers' lawsuit.

Media lawyer David L. Marburger of Cleveland said the judge's ruling is enforceable only in the Southern District of Ohio, which includes Columbus. But he expects it will become standard policy for public-records requests throughout the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Richard M. Kerger of Toledo, who argued the case on behalf of the police, disagreed with the judge's ruling.

"I've been unable to convince Judge Smith of the correctness of our position twice now," Kerger said. "We'll see what the 6th Circuit will do the next time. With no disrespect to Judge Smith, they reversed him before, hopefully they'll do it again."

State law continues to afford law enforcement officers protection that shields personal information, including home addresses, from the public, but not the press.

Meanwhile, Corrections Department officials in New Mexico are refusing to reveal the identity of two contracted Texas executioners despite protests that the public has a right to know.

"If we made their names public, you'd never get anyone to perform an execution," department spokesman Gerges Scott said.

The department contracted the Texas prison employees to administer lethal injection to Terry Clark, who is scheduled to die Nov. 6 for the murder of 9-year-old Dena Lynn Gore of Artesia.

Only two states — Alabama and Mississippi — make public the names of the executioners. Scott said the confidentiality policy is about protecting the executioners' safety.

"There are good policy reasons for this practice," Scott said, "including the likelihood that the executioner will be injured or harassed by those objecting to the execution."

Open-government advocates argue that the department has no reason to keep the names secret.

Bob Johnson, director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the state Inspection of Public Records Act does not allow exemptions because of fear of disruption or historic tradition.

"These are contract employees," he said. "I don't think the law allows their names to be kept secret any more than any other contractor with the state."


Related

Ohio state employees' home addresses not public records

But state supreme court warns agencies not to overinterpret its ruling, deny other records requests. 09.08.05

High court won't review release of officer's personnel file
6th Circuit had ruled Tennessee officials had immunity from lawsuit that claimed they put policeman's family in danger by releasing documents containing their names, other info. 03.22.06

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