Wednesday, June 24, 2015

State Police: Transparency? What Transparency?

by Caleb Taylor, The Arkansas Project: Arkansas State Police (ASP) officials recently took a break from trying to undercut constitutional rights in Arkansas to work on a secondary objective: namely, to try to make their agency much less transparent to the public.

The problem centers around a federal law, now more than two decades old, entitled the Drivers Privacy Protection Act — which has, apparently, just now become a huge priority of the ASP.

From the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:
Citing a federal law that has been on the books for 21 years, the Arkansas State Police began earlier this month withholding nearly all personal information from vehicle crash reports available to the public.

The agency contends the 1994 Drivers Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits personal information from motor vehicle reports from being made public, also covers police crash reports.

New reporting software makes it reasonable for the department to begin complying with the law, spokesman Bill Sadler said. Before, manually redacting the information on thousands of crash reports was too much of an administrative burden.

The new policy means the only personal information available on state police crash reports are the names and hometowns of fatalities. All other information, including the names of other drivers and passengers, is withheld.
'This change is an attack on open government. The information being withheld might sound boring to some, but here's the bottom line: this policy change by the ASP will make it harder for the media and the public to get information from their government. For instance, let’s say a male legislator is leaving a Little Rock hotel parking lot with a female passenger who's not his wife, and they get involved in a two-car wreck. If the legislator isn’t at fault in the wreck and charged with some kind of traffic violation or crime, because of this ASP policy change the public will never be able to find out the details.'

Here’s what Bowen Law Prof. Robert Steinbuch, Arkansas’ foremost FOIA expert, had to say about the ASP’s decision:
It's remarkable that the police assert that they only now discovered how to comply with a twenty-year-old law that they believe restricts the Arkansas FOIA. They could have called me, and I would have told them that all they need to redact a document is a magic marker. Those existed twenty years ago, last time I checked. In any event, the federal law doesn’t apply to police records. So, the police can save a lot of headache and comply with Arkansas’s FOIA without new or old redaction technology.According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, M. Keith Wren recently filed a lawsuit against the ASP, protesting the policy change. I’m pretty sure this won’t be the last we’ll hear about this egregious anti-transparency action by the ASP.
Tags: The Arkansas Project, Caleb Taylor, Arkansas State Police, What Transparency, To share or post to your site, click on "Post Link". This site is an Outreach of the ARRA News Service.

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