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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.

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Press Releases

State Awards $800K to Oak Ridge for Parking Lot Project

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; June 22, 2012:

OAK RIDGE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Commissioner John Schroer today announced a nearly $800,000 grant to transform Jackson Square in Oak Ridge.

The $798,687 transportation enhancement grant is for Phase I of the Jackson Square Townsite Reconfiguration Project, which includes major modifications to the parking lot on Broadway Avenue.

The project will transform this area into an attractive, landscaped plaza and parking area. Public sidewalks adjacent to the area will be reconstructed and will be connected to new sidewalks within the landscaped plaza. The project will also add park benches, bicycle racks, canopy trees, and pedestrian lighting.

“The Jackson Square project will further Oak Ridge’s efforts to enhance its historic downtown area and provide increased mobility and improved access to small businesses and cultural activities,” Haslam said. “Projects such as this one enhance local communities and make Tennessee an even better place to live, work and play.”

“Through Transportation Enhancement grants, TDOT has funded more than $270 million in non-traditional transportation projects,” Schroer said. “This program has assisted communities all over the state in their efforts to revitalize downtowns, highlight historic areas, provide alternative means of transportation, and increase opportunities for economic development.”

The grant is made possible through a federally funded program administered by TDOT. A variety of activities such as the restoration of historic facilities, bike and pedestrian trails, landscaping and other non-traditional transportation projects are eligible for grant funds under the federal program.

State Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and State Reps. Kelly Keisling (R-Byrdstown) and John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) represent Anderson County in the Tennessee General Assembly.

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Press Releases

State Enters Public-Private Education Partnership with Battelle

State of Tennessee News Release, Dec. 11, 2009:

Network to Focus on Science , Technology, Engineering & Math

MT. JULIET — Governor Phil Bredesen, joined by NASA Space Shuttle pilot and Mt. Juliet native Capt. Barry Wilmore, today announced a new public education partnership with the global research and development enterprise Battelle as part of Tennessee’s push in the federal Race to the Top competition for education innovation.

Under the partnership, Battelle, which co-manages Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in a joint venture with the University of Tennessee, will work with the state Department of Education and local school systems to establish a statewide network of programs and schools designed to promote and expand the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering, and math — or STEM — education.

The “Tennessee STEM Innovation Network” will be modeled in part on previous STEM efforts led by Battelle in other states, including its home state of Ohio. The new partnership comes on the heels of President Obama’s November launch of “Educate to Innovate,” a nationwide campaign to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade. Battelle is a “core partner” in the national campaign.

Bredesen, who majored in physics in college, said Tennessee already is well positioned thanks to a strong base of existing businesses, colleges and universities, programs, local schools and other organizations focused on 21st-Century innovation. With Battelle joining as a partner, he said, Tennessee can expand educational opportunities and better coordinate efforts for the benefit of teachers and kids across the state. Additionally, he said, Tennessee can create new STEM teaching and learning models that can be shared with the rest of the country.

“Battelle is a world-class partner with a track record of bringing innovative teaching and learning strategies into public schools,” Bredesen said. “We want to learn from their experience and make Tennessee the nation’s leader in STEM education.”

Joining Bredesen in making the Battelle announcement was Capt. Wilmore, a graduate of Mt. Juliet High School, Tennessee Tech University and the University of Tennessee, who embodies the importance of STEM teaching and learning to America’s future. The astronaut’s studies in aviation and electrical engineering laid the groundwork for a career that eventually led him to pilot NASA’s STS-129 Space Shuttle mission last month. Promoting STEM learning is a key priority in NASA’s public education efforts.

“Captain Wilmore represents the very best of Tennessee and the life opportunities that exist for kids who want to pursue science and math,” Bredesen said. “We appreciate NASA’s commitment to promoting STEM learning in America.”

“We applaud the state of Tennessee for its vision to enhance science and math education, and we look forward to working as a partner in this major public-private effort,” said Battelle’s Richard Rosen, Vice President, Education and Philanthropy. “Advancing STEM education is key to the future of our nation.”

Battelle has strong roots in STEM education. In August 2006, Battelle helped launch Ohio’s first STEM-based school, Metro Early College High School, on the campus of The Ohio State University. For the past two years, Battelle has managed the Ohio STEM Learning Network, a public-private partnership designed to foster and spread meaningful and sustainable innovations that change the way education looks and works. It has mobilized the support of 47 institutions of higher education, 81 public school districts, and more than 300 unique business and community partners. This fall, Battelle applied lessons learned from Metro High School to launch Delta High School in Richland, Wash.

As the world’s largest independent research and development organization, Battelle provides innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing needs in energy and the environment, national security, and health and the life sciences. Battelle conducts more than $5.2 billion in global research and development annually through contract research, laboratory management and technology commercialization. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, Battelle is one of the nation’s leading charitable trusts focusing on societal and economic impact and actively supporting and promoting science and math education.

Detailed plans for Battelle’s involvement in the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network will be developed in the coming weeks. The ultimate scope of the network will hinge, in part, on whether Tennessee is successful in securing federal funds as part of the President’s Race to the Top competition. Regardless of federal dollars, Bredesen said it’s time for a new focus on STEM teaching and learning in Tennessee schools.

“In America and Tennessee, we have an obligation to improve our role in the global economy and create high-quality innovation jobs for the future,” Bredesen said. “Our new partnership with Battelle is a bold step toward making STEM a statewide and a national priority.”