Do you like the incident reports now provided by Sheriff Ben Becerra’s office for publication (see here )? We do. We think it’s a great way for our county’s law enforcement officers to communicate with the people they serve. We welcome these reports and applaud the sheriff’s decision and his staff’s effort to provide these reports for publication each week without charge.
Not everyone elsewhere in Missouri can say the same about their local sheriff.
Recently, the Missouri Sunshine Coalition conducted an audit of Missouri’s 114 county sheriffs to measure how well sheriffs provide information to the public they serve. The results show vast inconsistencies statewide.
Ask for one day’s worth of arrest and incident reports from your local sheriff, and you could get all the documents for free. Or officials might charge hundreds of dollars and demand payment up front before sending anything. Or they may not respond at all!
Eighty-eight agencies responded to the coalition’s initial request for information in some form, a response rate of 77%. But some required large payments for records, and some never responded.
Maybe some sheriff’s offices put a low priority on responding to a non-local inquiry. The Missouri Sunshine Coalition is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting freedom of information in the Show-Me State. Perhaps the coalition’s inquiry just got lost in the daily grind of paperwork.
By law, however, public-information requests should be responded to within 72 business hours of receiving the request, which can be made orally. Paper copies under the law should cost no more than 10 cents per page. Search time should be billed at “actual cost of research time” using the employee that results in the lowest charges for the time involved.
Here’s how the audit was conducted.
On Sept. 24, 2012, the coalition sent letters to all county sheriff’s offices requesting all incident and arrest reports — records deemed open to the public under the Missouri Sunshine Law, Chapter 610, Revised Statutes of Missouri — for the date Sept. 18. Three letters came back “return to sender.”
On Nov. 2, follow-up letters were sent to the offices that did not respond to the first request. A dozen counties responded to the second letter.
In January, coalition members called the remaining 11 counties (Barry, Dent, DeKalb, Gentry, Knox, Madison, Marion, Moniteau, St. Francois, Ste. Genevieve and Stoddard) that had not responded to either request. Several stated they had not received the letters; Madison County was the only one that reported having fulfilled the request.
Other inconsistencies uncovered by the audit include the following:
Access to documents
Thirty offices sent the documents. However, 25 counties required up-front payment, and three (Buchanan, Montgomery, and Worth) did not fulfill the request, saying it was not specific enough. Several other counties requested more specificity before fulfilling the request.
Fees for copying and research
Twenty offices sent the documents for free. But some charged as much as $20 per report! The highest proposed charges were from Maries ($380 per report), Franklin ($355 per report), and Cole ($205 for unspecified administrative costs).
Several counties overstepped their bounds by asking what the request was for; requesters are not required to disclose why they want the information.
Polk County would not fulfill the request unless the requester came in person. The sheriff’s office also would not accept personal checks. Atchison County said the request requires “physical presence,” unless it is from an insurance company or legal counsel. Buchanan County called the request “vague” and “nonspecific.”
However, many counties had no problem fulfilling the request. Some of the most accommodating were: Adair County (sent five pages, and responded via e-mail saying, “We are happy to honor your request for fees to be waived.”); Lincoln County (sent 24 pages of documents free of charge); Mississippi County (sent 16 pages free of charge).
“There’s a severe lack of understanding of basic Sunshine Law provisions among the sheriff’s departments in this state in regard to the proper way to respond to a Sunshine Law request,” says attorney Jean Maneke, a Missouri Sunshine Law expert and coalition member.
“The law demands responsiveness by government officials to requests for information from the public and clearly mandates access to the records we requested,” writes Jim Robertson, the coalition’s president. “We found that too many jurisdictions fail to understand or follow the law.”
That’s what the statewide audit proves. But when you read our courthouse news every week (on page 6 in print, or find the category link in the left sidebar), remember that our Daviess County Sheriff’s office is not one of the offenders. And we all should appreciate that.
Thank you, Sheriff Becerra.