Editorial: Law Enforcement Barriers Against Incident Reporting (3/28/22)

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Ten years ago, Baylor University’s football program went rogue. For several years, players have committed sexual assaults, rapes and other crimes. School officials helped cover up these crimes.

But they had help.

It’s unclear at this time whether some members of the Waco, Texas, police department bowed to pressure from the university or simply took it upon themselves to cover up the crimes of the athletes who, no doubt, were high earners. money to the university and to the city. .

What is crystal clear is that the police department has a standard operating procedure in place when it comes to allegations against Baylor athletes.

A young woman contacts the police, accusing a Baylor football player of raping her. The police take his statement and begin to investigate.

The original incident report — the allegation’s first public document, a document that state law declares to be an open public record — would not be public. No one, including local media researching such cases, would know about the allegation.

Months later, after prosecutors finished their work and charged the player with a crime, like magic, that original incident report surfaced in court papers.

Yes, the incident would eventually break out. Yes, the system would punish the player. Yes, the victim would receive justice. And, yes, the player would play the whole season before swapping his green Baylor uniform for an orange jumpsuit.

Why does the cesspool that was the Baylor football team come to mind now?

Some southeastern Missouri law enforcement agencies appointed themselves the same judge and jury as the Waco Police Department.

Cape Girardeau Police Department officials universally refuse to release incident reports. Period. End of the story. They say they must judge whether releasing information would harm those involved. They have invested a great deal of time, money and energy in programs aimed at reducing the harm from incidents of domestic violence and helping people with mental health issues.

These are laudable goals.

However, state law does not grant such carte blanche to the police department.

But the Cape Girardeau Police Department is not the only violator of public information in the area.

Recently, a Southeast Missouri investigation into an alleged incident involving a Chaffee, Missouri, high school student and a teacher led the Chaffee Police Department to refuse to acknowledge whether a report had even been generated. Our reporter asked for the date of such a report, if it existed, and the answer was crickets.

Another example of officials responsible for providing public information: Two requests for county-level law enforcement records (Cape Girardeau County) included the question: Why do you want this information?

Missouri state law is clear on the issue of incident reporting. These reports are open public documents. And nowhere does the law explain why it is important for someone to ask for the information.

Make no mistake, we appreciate the work local law enforcement does for our communities, even viewing much of the work of local officers as heroic. They have an extremely difficult job. But on this issue, the bureaucracies of a number of law enforcement agencies in this region – funded by our tax dollars and dedicated to protecting and serving the public – are routinely wrong.

To be clear, an original incident report differs from an “investigative” report. An investigation report likely includes information about suspects and criminal activity. He helps law enforcement build a case against the suspects. The law should absolutely protect investigation reports from the public, allowing law enforcement agencies to do their job.

But state law differentiates an incident report from an investigation report for good reason.

The public has every right and a potentially important need to know what is going on in the community.

Quoting Missouri state law: “incident report”, “a record from a law enforcement agency including the date, time, specific location, victim’s name, and facts and immediate circumstances surrounding the initial report of a crime or incident, including the reported crime, accident, and complaint logs maintained by this agency”; “Investigation Report”, “a record, other than an arrest or incident report, prepared by personnel of a law enforcement agency, investigating a crime or suspected crime, either in response to an incident report or in response to elaborate evidence by law enforcement officers in the performance of their duties. »

There are provisions for law enforcement to withhold information in certain circumstances, but throwing a blanket blanket of non-disclosure on incident reports is obviously against not only the spirit but also the letter of the law.

As representatives of the public, faced with officials who thumb their noses at the law, the news media have two options.

First, we can draw public attention to their intransigence and encourage them to ask their elected and appointed representatives why these policies are in place.

Second, we can enter the legal arena and compel these agencies to comply with the law. Nobody wins in such a case.

We take our job of reporting the news seriously. We are very offended when someone prevents us from doing so. Unfortunately, some of those who put up barriers are taxpayer-funded law enforcement agencies who decide for the rest of us what they will and will not tell us.

It can’t hold.

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