Press Releases

TCOG: Incident Reports Involving Police Should Not Be Withheld from Public

Press release from the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government; August 9, 2014:

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.


Missing Cash Leads to Charges of Theft Against Morgan County Clerk

An east Tennessee county clerk took money home instead of depositing it to the office’s bank account, state auditors have found.

The auditor’s investigation — which identified more than $54,600 in missing funds — led to Morgan County Clerk Carol J. Hamby being indicted for theft, official misconduct and violation of a state law that requires public funds to be deposited within three days of receipt.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel has been reporting on the indictment and state comptroller auditors’ findings.

Under pressure from the investigation, Hamby returned more than $47,000, though some $7,400 was still missing as of late December, according to the report.

In a paraphrased response included in the audit, Hamby said she would not comment in detail because of the pending legal action but said she strived for “transparent record keeping.”

I made wrong decisions that allowed me to be in this situation. I have worked my absolute best to insure (sic) the customers had great quality service. All money was submitted to the Tennessee Department of Revenue, the Tennessee Department of Safety, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and any other state agency.

I focused heavily on some areas of my office and not heavily enough in others. … There are times I thought with my heart and not my brain. We all learn with age and experience.

Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Knox Co. Gov’t Employee Who Stole $67K: ‘I just wasn’t thinking’

A Knox County official who stole $67,000 in housing funds will be on probation for three years, according to a judge who urged him to “be a productive citizen” at his Tuesday sentencing hearing. The judge seemed baffled by the theft, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel report:

“The first thing I thought when I read your (presentence) report is why on Earth didn’t you just go down to the bank and get a 90-day note or something,” Senior U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan asked of former Knox County Housing Authority Assistant Executive Director William John Pollock.

“I just wasn’t thinking,” Pollock responded. “That would have been the prudent thing to do.”

Pollock’s defense attorney told the court that the theft was prompted by the funeral expenses incurred after his father’s death. The misdeed was exposed in a 2008 audit, which we’ve noted can be a fruitful source of information.

Read the full story here, which raises questions about another official who “kept quiet” about the theft.