By Deborah Fisher, TCOG executive director
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported today that Oak Ridge officials have refused to release a police incident report in a case in which two officers fired four gunshots at a suicidal woman.
This is the second time in recent weeks that journalist Bob Fowler has reported that the police department has refused to give media a copy of an incident report in a situation involving or possibly involving police. The other was in a case in which a woman said she was sexually assaulted by someone who appeared to be a police officer or security guard.
In both instances, the Oak Ridge police released some information through a press release.
So why should citizens care that they won’t release the incident report?
An incident report, also called an offense report, is the initial recording of the alleged crime that took place. It’s what the officers on the scene write up after going out on a police call. It generally contains the who, what, when and where of what was reported to have happened. The incident report is an intake document in that police are writing down what they were told, or what they observed. It’s an official document.
By allowing someone in law enforcement – let’s say a police chief, or a deputy, or a detective, or a public information officer – to essentially pick and choose what information they share about what officers on the scene saw and recorded in a basic incident report, we are essentially giving police broad latitude to keep secret any details that they want. Anything – with no oversight or rules – just whatever they want. Even in cases where their police officers shot at a citizen, or potentially sexually assaulted someone.
That’s a pretty significant power to hand over.
This is not about not trusting your local police or sheriff’s department. Many of them deserve our respect and gratitude for putting their life on the line to keep our communities safe. And many of them want to share information with the public, not hide it. They know that transparency instills respect and trust in their departments. And they need that to do their job.
This is about retaining a citizen’s right to see public documents that help us know if our government is operating the way we want. It’s about sunshine being the best disinfectant for those who would abuse the power we vest in them.
Citizens in Tennessee don’t want a military state where police or sheriff’s departments have unlimited power with no check such as is provided by the Tennessee Open Records Act. Frankly, I would bet not many law enforcement officers want that kind of state either.
It’s not about any one local law enforcement agency. It’s about how we want a democratic government to work where the ultimate power lies with its citizenry. Information is the currency of democracy. Without information, citizens are at a deficit.
Police incident reports are timely documents about crime in our communities.
They should remain open for inspection.
Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, an 11-year-old nonprofit alliance of media, citizens and good government groups who promote transparency in government.