Press&Policy

Northwoods police differ on disclosure

Posted in Public records law by foiguy on September 21, 2013

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I write today about how the DPPA debacle is affecting the Northwoods. In short: Two out of six law enforcement agencies in Oneida and Vilas counties — Rhinelander and Eagle River police departments — have adopted more restrictive disclosure policies since the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals en banc decision in Village of Palatine v. Senne.

Chiefs of both police departments didn’t mince words about what they think of the new policies:

Rhinelander Police Chief Michael Steffes said his department changed its public records policy on the recommendation of the city’s insurance company. He said he is just complying with that advice, though he doesn’t agree with it.

“Personally the frustration is that I want to be as transparent as possible with the public,” Steffes said. “Once we have an accident, I want to be able to share that with everyone. If the DPPA is going to prohibit people to see what we’re doing in the city, that bothers me that it seems to limit our full ability to be transparent to the public.”

Rhinelander’s police department has created a partial workaround: Officers are giving drivers involved in accidents a consent form that allows the department to release personal information to other drivers in the accident.

No such workaround exists in Eagle River, where the police department there has also restricted release of personal information in police reports. Police Chief Mark VanderBloomen said he too is upset with the change.

“This entire mess with the DPPA and the Wisconsin open records law has been extremely frustrating,” VanderBloomen said. “In a nutshell, yes, we have changed the way we release open records regarding information garnered through DOT records on advice from legal counsel.”

Four agencies, however, including both sheriffs, have not altered their policies. That kind of mishmash is common around Wisconsin, according to Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

“It really is very schizophrenic,” Bennett said. “It’s just different from one city to the next.”

In an interview, Bennett told me she has met with the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, associations for units of local government and the insurance industry to discuss the redaction problem. There was a consensus, she said, that something needed to be done.

“There is a general agreement that even the organization that represents local governments would like this clarified,” Bennett said.

The full article, “Northwoods police differ on disclosure,” appeared in the Northwoods River News on Sept. 21, 2013, and in The Lakeland Times on Sept. 27, 2013.

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