Police Reports Are Public Record, They Don't Need ‘Approval' To Be Released

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Gathering the news from official sources is a mixed bag for reporters and newspapers in general. Some government agencies are helpful when a reporter makes a request, especially if it's something the director of the agency wants the public to read.

But that same individual can also erect roadblocks if someone wants to hide that information.

This week, the Payson Police Department started throwing up roadblocks to prevent us from fully reporting on an assault that took place on school grounds by refusing to release key police reports.

We routinely get calls from Rim Country residents, parents and teachers about incidents that require police involvement. Usually, Payson police answer our questions on behalf of our readers, but sometimes we have to press police and school officials for answers.

In mid-December, we learned a student was hurt in a classroom fight at the middle school. We sought information from Payson school district officials, but they refused to release any information, citing federal school privacy laws.

We think that is a bit of a stretch.

The federal educational privacy act gives students special protection when it comes to "educational records." Payson school district officials say this limits what they can tell us about criminal incidents involving students. We disagree. The act is intended to protect education records, not the criminal activities of students. This federal law does not prevent school officials from talking about criminal activity.

However, the Payson Police Department put up the biggest, most objectionable roadblocks to the passage of information to which the public is entitled. Police officials have investigated this and other incidents, but have so far refused to make the police reports public despite the clear requirements of law.

State law says no police agency, town government or school district can refuse to release public documents to the public, with a very narrow list of exceptions relating to personnel matters and lawsuits.

The federal education privacy act may give a school district something to hide behind, but when it comes to the safety of students and potentially criminal acts, the public has a right to that information.

Clearly, the federal law also does not prevent the release of information by the Payson police department.

We have repeatedly asked to see several police reports, knowing that school safety matters a lot to our readers. Repeatedly, police have refused to release these public documents.

On Jan. 7 -- nearly a month after the incident -- police again insisted the police reports are not "approved" for release.

That's bogus and a violation of Arizona law. State law makes no provision about releasing only "approved" public records. In fact, any report becomes a public record the moment it is necessary to create the record and maintain it.

The Supreme Court in 1993 underscored the public's rights in a forthright decision that designated police records as public documents, subject to the public records law. The Court emphasized officials who would hide public records must "specifically demonstrate how production of the documents would violate rights of privacy, or confidentiality or would be detrimental to the best interests of the state."

Payson police officials have made no effort to meet that legal obligation.

Moreover, the courts have repeatedly ruled that incident reports and police reports can only be withheld if an agency demonstrates that "a countervailing interest of confidentiality, privacy or the best interests of the state outweighs the public's right to know."

Clearly, in this case, no such special interest outweighs the public's need for access to all the information necessary to decide whether police and school officials have done enough to protect students on school grounds.

In now calling upon the school district and the police department to abide by the law, we aren't arguing for any special right of the press -- but for the public's right to make sure that the public's business is carried on in the light.

Take down the barricades, which should be erected only to protect the public -- not to obscure the actions of public officials.

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