Expert urges more openness from OCCC police department

October 2, 2015 Latest, News Print Print
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Open records book“As the Oklahoma Constitution recognizes and guarantees, all political power is inherent in the people. Thus, it is the policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government.”

—Oklahoma Open Records Act
OCCC houses a police department. The officers employed there are state employees, paid by taxpayer money.

They perform duties just as any other police department would including ticketing drivers for traffic infractions, responding to distress calls and making arrests.

They also are required to complete reports for any occurrence that requires their intervention. When making these reports, Campus Police Chief James Fitzpatrick said his officers follow the same protocol he used during his time with the Oklahoma City Police Department.

Fitzpatrick said everything officers must include in incident reports according to the Oklahoma Open Records Act is included.

The Open Records Act is intended to provide transparency of all government agencies.

“The purpose of this Act is to ensure and facilitate the public’s right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power,” according the “Open Meeting and Open Records Book.”

OCCC officers are instructed to give a brief but detailed report, and the magnitude of the crime generally determines what information is left in reports or is redacted, Fitzpatrick said.

Redacted means the general public cannot see the information because it is obscured from the report prior to its release. In the case of the college, reports are sent to Marketing and Public Relations where, under the guidance of the police chief, certain information is marked out before a report is released.

Fitzpatrick said he set those guidelines based on the state statute. He offered an example.

“If we send an officer out on the call, and he arrives and discovers a homicide, he’s going to put in the [information] like where it was, the date, the time, the location,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Obviously he’s going to put in some [information] that’s probably going to be redacted — like for victims’ names, there’s next-of-kin issues. From that point on, they turn that report in, and that’s about all you’re going to get until the homicide case is done.

“Now for larceny, everything is going to be in that report. It just depends on what it’s about, but each and every incident report has to have a date, a time, a location, if there’s an arrest made, who was arrested, and a brief synopsis of what happened. That’s the information that we’re required to provide to anybody who walks into our office.”

Oklahoma City Police Department Public Information Officer Sgt. Gary Knight said OCCC does appear to follow the same guidelines his department does. Knight said Oklahoma City police officers — also state employees — must give detailed reports. However, he said, for major crimes, detailed information is found only in a supplemental report which, Knight said, is not an open record.

“We teach our officers to write a clear and accurate depiction of what happened in all circumstances,” Knight said. “On a major crime scene, you will have few details in the initial crime incident report for a variety of reasons. But on things such as an auto burglary report, our guys will usually put everything in the initial crime incident report, as there is no need for a supplemental report by the responding officer.

“If it is an arrest report, the initial crime incident report should contain the elements of the crime that led to probable cause being developed.”

Knight said because of what the state’s Open Records Act requires, there are many things redacted from Oklahoma City police reports before they are made open records. He said many of these redactions are done to protect the safety or privacy of those involved.

“We always redact the names of minors, unless they are arrested for felonies or traffic offenses,” he said. “We redact the names of victims of sex crimes and domestic abuse, and all others on those reports who can lead you to the name of the victim, and the specific address of the attack, if it would lead to the identity of the victim. We redact names of gang sets, as the release of those names often leads to an escalation of gang violence.”

Knight said adults’ names also are redacted unless they have been arrested or had an arrest warrant issued for them. In addition, he said, reports are not released when information in them could compromise an investigation.

Fitzpatrick said OCCC also does not allow reports to interfere with investigations.

“We’ve never released investigative reports,” he said. “That’s a common practice. I came from Oklahoma City and I follow pretty much the same practices as they did, and we didn’t release investigative reports from there either.

“(Investigative reports) are not covered under the Open Records Act, as far as open records. It’s specific as to what it is that we’re required to put out.”

Oklahoma State University media law and ethics Associate Professor Joey Senat said while OCCC may follow the letter of the Open Records law, it does not necessarily follow the moral intent of the law.

“ … I don’t believe they’re in compliance with the spirit of the act,” the former Freedom of Information Oklahoma president said.

“I think there’s a time when, even if there’s not an arrest, the information involved in the incident should be made public. So I think their decision that they’re only going to release information when there is an arrest is not quite in compliance with the spirit of what the statute requires, which is to inform us of what government is doing.

“Again, I don’t think that was the intent of the statute. And part of that goes back to the issue of the way our statute, the Open Records Act, was written, when it comes to law enforcement records.”

Fitzpatrick said his goal is to give the public as much information as possible.

“Generally the only thing you’re going to have redacted from a report is a name, a social security number, a date of birth, something that would identify somebody that has not been arrested,” he said. “We want to try to make it where we redact as little as possible.”

Fitzpatrick said anyone who is concerned that information has been redacted from a report that should not have been should contact him.

“If you ever have a question about that, you should just come in and ask,” he said. “You should not be seeing anything redacted from our reports other than identifiers of people. We shouldn’t be redacting anything else from the report.”

OCCC officers also respond to medical calls. Information on those reports also are redacted with the police department citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that was passed by Congress in 1996. The act places limitations on what medical information health care providers can release.

“HIPAA applies to health plans, healthcare clearinghouses, and those health care providers that conduct certain health care transactions electronically (e.g., billing a health plan). These are known as covered entities,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

OCCC Police Lt. Daniel Piazza said students involved in medical calls have a right to privacy of their medical records.

Senat disagrees. He said if OCCC police are citing HIPAA as a reason for redacting names from medical incidents, they are misinterpreting the law.

“HIPAA does not override state open records acts,” he said. “HIPAA would apply only if, for example, an ambulance service bills electronically. Then HIPAA would apply to EMSA records. But it doesn’t apply to a police record.”

While some OCCC officers are trained First Responders, the college does not bill for that service and is not considered a medical facility.

Fitzpatrick said open records requests for OCCC police reports can be made via Marketing and Public Relations at 405-682-7590, or by emailing Marketing and Public Relations Director Cordell Jordan at cordell.t.jordan@occc.edu.

He said for additional information, visit the campus police department on the first floor of the Main Building to make the request.

“There’s certain aspects of a case, that if people want follow-ups on them, they can come by and just make an inquiry,” he said. “We try to be as cooperative as we can.”

Senat said he’d like to see law enforcment agencies make the decision to share more information with the public.

“The Open Records Act, when it comes to law enforcement records, is ass-backwards,” he said.

“In our state the legislators wrote it so that there’s a list of records they must make available, and then the requestor has to go to court to get access to any other law enforcement record. …

“Other states don’t operate that way.”

Senat said people should have no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public property setting such as OCCC.

“If you’re involved in an incident in public, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” he said.

“It certainly seems to have become a case of, ‘We’re not going to tell you unless we absolutely have to.’”

Open records requests for OCPD reports can be made by calling 405-297-1112.

Open Records Act statutes can be found online at atwww.odl.state.ok.us/lawinfo/docs/2006-librarylaws-parte.pdf

The Oklahoma Open Meeting and Open Records Book can be ordered online at www.okpress.com/open-meeting-open-records.

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