Lost in the controversy over the release of a Salem police report that resulted in the resignation of a city official is a much larger issue: Why was the document classified as an investigatory record in the first place, thereby preventing it from being released to the news media?
Back in September of 2008 the Republican candidate for state representative, Caroline Hergenrother, was involved in a bar fight in Salem, along with her husband.
The incident report released by police the weekend of the incident had only sketchy details of the bar brawl and no identities for the people involved. Apparently someone at the police department was attempting to protect Hergenrother's chances in the November election when she was facing Democratic incumbent Linda Bolon by withholding a portion of the report. The names and full details, however, were included in the "investigative notes" leaked to and published by a political blog and the Morning Journal. Bolon later won re-election over Hergenrother.
The Ohio Open Records Law, or Sunshine Law, is very specific about what criteria allows police reports to be withheld as "investigative." They can be kept private to protect witnesses promised confidentiality, protect the identity of uncharged suspects, to protect the integrity of an investigation or the life of law enforcement personnel, witnesses or victims. It's very difficult to see how this particular report of a bar scuffle would qualify as "investigative" under this criteria.
A probe of the leak was conducted by the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation and when it concluded last month, there was no recommendation for prosecution, but Salem's Deputy Director of Service and Safety Greg Oesch resigned.
After the BCII probe ended, the Morning Journal requested that the full "investigative" report be released to us. What we received was nothing more than the original police investigative notes that we had received in the original "leak." So, it was just as we suspected, there never was an "investigation." The police department was merely attempting to withhold information which we were entitled to receive from the very beginning.
And, the person or persons who "leaked" the document to the press were actually doing nothing more than providing a report that should have been a public document in the first place. The people suppressing the report were the ones breaking the law - the Sunshine Law. Why has this never been an issue?
During the height of the controversy, allegations of ethics and elections violations surfaced, but no one has ever asked how this record could qualify to be classified as an "investigative" record in the first place?
And this causes us to wonder, how many other reports are being hidden by police departments everywhere under the guise of being "under investigation?" What else is occurring that the public never learns about? Do the police use this excuse anytime they want to protect someone or something from public scrutiny?
Police reports are one of the most highly read features in our newspaper. People want to know what is going on in their communities, and they want to know the names of the people involved in those crimes.
A recent poll conducted on our Web site by the Morning Journal asked, "When reading police reports in the (newspaper) which do you prefer, a) All names be included or b) All names be omitted." Of the 337 respondents, 90 percent, or 302, indicated they preferred that all names be included. This came as no surprise to us. As they say, "names make news." At the Journal, we make every effort to include all police reports, and we also try to include the names involved in those incidents. But we can't do that if they aren't made available to us.
We hope in the future that police departments will think before they attempt to mislead the press and the public by hiding reports under that mysterious "investigative" cloak. Not every little incident warrants an investigation, but the public has the right to know the contents of every report, regardless of its seriousness or who it involves. And that right is protected by law.