Police reports open to the public
BY MICHAEL DRAKULICH Mar 16, 2010
No matter how serious the crimes described in them may be, police reports are public record in Illinois.
And by state law, anyone is allowed access to them.
Though the Illinois Freedom of Information Act is specific as to what types of information should be made available - and even when it should be made available - the process for obtaining the information isn't necessarily uniform.
"We're firm believers in the FOIA law," Frankfort police Cmdr. John Burica said. But "we want to protect the people making the reports. You can't be too careful with what information goes out."
During February, the SouthtownStar surveyed area police departments for access to police reports in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act. It was part of the newspaper's efforts to highlight the importance of open government during a week dubbed nationally as Sunshine Week.
The newspaper blanketed local governments, police departments and school districts throughout the Southland to test how elected and appointed officials are measuring up to the new state law. The newspaper sent 18 communities an official FOIA request asking to see all police reports for Feb. 17.
All 18 complied. Many of them even had the reports in electronic format sent by e-mail.
Police officials say they find themselves trying to balance releasing information required by law and protecting the public, their sworn duty.
With amendments to the law taking effect this year, some Southland departments have had to refine their policies to reflect the law's changes.
Each department - and government agency - gets five days under state law to provide records after someone requests them. They can also request a five-day extension. Public agencies must also appoint an FOIA officer to handle requests under the law and must undergo training provided by the state.
For the sake of getting important information about crime out to the public sooner, police departments often cooperate with media by making reports available weekly, sometimes daily, without formal requests.
Reports aren't blanketly made available, though. The law states certain reports may be legally withheld from public inspection.
According to state law, reports are to be made available within 72 hours and must include name, age, address and charges relating to an arrest. Time and location of an arrest is also required.
Information pertaining to an ongoing investigation or that may affect an investigation does not have to be made public, the law states. How such information pertains to an ongoing investigation is left to the discretion of the individual department.
The law is not meant to be an invasion of privacy either. Police can block out items from reports that constitute private information such as the names of witnesses or victims, their Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
In an age of identity theft, police say they are erring on the side of caution.
Frankfort goes a step further by putting police incidents on its Web site.
Reports involving juveniles are also exempt from normal availability under the law. Even when charged with a crime, juveniles' identities are protected under the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 and may not be released.
The law even states juvenile reports should be kept separate from others.
Oak Forest Police Chief Greg Anderson said for matters of public safety, police will release incident information when a juvenile is involved. When the media requests those reports, officers will block out anything that could be used to identify the juvenile.
If a citizen requests a report pertaining to a juvenile, Anderson said he'd be more apt to withhold the report completely rather than try and redact everything that could be used to identify the child.
Mokena Police Chief Randy Rajewski said media requesting access to reports are given the reports and left to take whatever information they want.
But to protect juveniles, Rajewski said, the printing system the Mokena police use to print reports for media access specifically does not print any information on a juvenile. He said the report would indicate age and gender only.
Though there are differences from one department to the next in how much report information is released, Oak Lawn Police Division Chief Mike Kaufmann said he doesn't see a lot of leeway in the FOIA law.
He said it is rather specific, and Oak Lawn will follow it closely.
New Lenox Police Chief Bob Sterba said his department is still "feeling its way" around the state law's amendments.
He said the line between protecting the public and informing it is "a fine line to walk."