Policies keep some crime reports under wraps
The series of attacks on women that has unsettled Pittsburgh area residents has shaken some people's faith in local police.
Wary residents want to know why police did not warn them sooner that a sexual predator might be in their midst.
The answer lies in part with local police departments and policies on public information.
In Highland Park, where a police impersonator sexually assaulted a woman, residents were unaware of the incident until Allegheny County police alerted the public. The incident happened Sept. 13 and the link with police impersonations in several other locations was not revealed until Dec. 6.
The same man is believed to have pulled over several other women throughout Allegheny County.
County police also are investigating a string of attacks on women in the East End and North Hills that have left residents fearful and clamoring for more information.
But that information can be hard to obtain, in part because some police logs are off limits to the public.
In East Pittsburgh and Penn Township, the public does not have ready access to the police logs.
And those communities are far from alone in the Pittsburgh area.
Of 10 departments in the east suburbs surveyed by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, four do not provide police logs for the public to see.
In all, half of the 32 departments the Trib surveyed throughout the region did not have police logs available on request.
"The public is not getting the kind of information that it is entitled to under the law," said Corinna Wilson, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.
Under state law, police departments are required to allow public access to information about the calls they handle. That information is typically contained in a police log or blotter, Wilson said.
The logs contain the date, time, address and type of call.
The law allows anyone to peruse the police log and take down the information it contains, said Robert Richards, co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University.
"The police log or police blotter are open records, but there's quite a variation in the way communities handle this," Richards said.
Richards is pushing for new legislation that would clearly spell out which police documents are to be made public.
"The problem is with the open records law -- a 1957 act -- that has not been updated in any appreciable way," Richards said.
Still, state law clearly requires police departments to provide basic information about the calls they handle.
"In some cases, they don't want to do what the law says they have to do," Wilson said.
A 1997 court case confirmed the public nature of police logs. The case was filed against Neville Township after local officials refused to release records to a manufacturing company.
In that case, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania found that police logs are public documents and ordered the information to be released.
Fifteen years earlier, the city of Lebanon in central Pennsylvania was ordered to make its police log public after the local newspaper sued.
Case law marks police logs as public documents, but getting the information can take a court battle, Richards said.
"The only method is to take it to court," Richards said. "It's a very difficult undertaking. Can you imagine the ordinary citizen who in order to get access must go to court and file a lawsuit to get that information• That is truly unfortunate."
Richards called on state lawmakers to establish penalties for police departments that do not provide access to information. Current law does not.
Police argue deciding what information to release is a delicate balance between investigating crime and alerting the public.
"This is a double-edged sword," said Terry Focareta, Plum police chief. "If we've had a lot of public outcry, we try to make it public. On the other side of the coin, if there is an event under investigation and we feel releasing information will jeopardize the investigation, we won't release it. It's hard for the public to understand that sometimes."
While the police log is considered a public document, state law allows police to withhold an investigative report while a case is pending.
Those reports contain detailed information about a case, including victims' names.
When an arrest is made or a case closed, that information is to be released to the public.
In some police departments, including Murrysville and McKeesport, selected information is made available to the public.
Although many police departments provide some access to information, the problem remains that police decide which incidents to make public without a full account of all calls, Richards said.
In most communities, the police chief has the final say on what information is made public and when.
"Information is important," said Doug Cole, Monroeville assistant police chief. "There's a time when information should be disseminated, and there's a time when it should not be. That's a juggling act that we do."
Cole said police weigh several factors when deciding what information to release.
"We look at the solvability factor," Cole said. "How close are we to solving the crime• Certainly, if we feel we're close to catching a suspect, we don't want to tip him off."
While reports can be withheld, the police log in Monroeville is open to the public.
"Anybody can walk in off the street and look at our police log," Cole said.
Police logs also are readily available in Churchill, Forest Hills, Penn Hills, Plum Borough, West Mifflin and Elizabeth Township.
Etna resident Charles Cleaver said police should be able to use discretion when deciding what information to make public.
"I do believe in some respects that they give us too much," Cleaver said. "Sometimes, you're better off not knowing. Why bring it out until they've got something solid• They've got everybody running scared."
But Cleaver cautioned against police withholding information that could prove damaging to the community.
"It's not right if they set aside something just because they don't want it to come out," Cleaver said.
|What the law requires|
Court dockets, police blotters (chronological listings of arrests) and press releases are established as public records. The Pennsylvania Open Records Act does not contain a provision for recourse when access to public records is denied. The proper course of action for the denied party is an appeal under the Right to Know Law. Police blotters and incident reports, which contain essentially the same information are public records under the Right to Know Law, but police investigative reports are not considered public records.
Among the Pittsburgh area communities that do not provide ready public access to police logs or blotters:
Among the Pittsburgh area communities that allow partial public access to police logs through select incident reports:
Among the Pittsburgh area communities that allow full public access to police logs or blotters:
Source: Governor's Center for Local Government Services, Harrisburg