Public records exemptions too broad

Louisiana’s public records act – on paper at any rate – is considered on its face one of the strongest in the nation, exceeding the provisions for disclosure in the federal Freedom of Information Act by a mile, and supposedly consistent with the state constitution’s provision that the public nature of records kept by government is presumed unless proved otherwise.

The suggestion that government should be this open has many roots cultural and legal in Louisiana. Culturally, it is a strong statement in opposition to the days of Huey Long, when a criminal defendant could disappear in the criminal justice system’s labyrinth at the whim of a governor or some other powerful official. This is one of the reasons why booking information is so freely available in the jails. It is not to embarrass the detainees – even though some may utilize the information that way – but for their protection.

Law enforcement agencies enjoy particularly broad exemptions under the law, which were not always part of it, but added over years, likely because newspaper people – us included – were asleep at the wheel and didn’t fight hard enough to protect them.

It is understandable that law enforcement agencies require special protections from prying eyes. But we have observed case after case where the privileges afforded by the law are either misinterpreted or misused.

This issue crosses from the theoretical to the practical in many ways, most recently during negotiation of information release involving two public agencies in Lafourche Parish.

First, it should be understood that both the Thibodaux Police Department and the Lafourche Sheriff’s Office have capable and helpful public information officers, who more than meet the challenges of their positions as bridges between their agencies and the public, as well as the news media. But they must work under the orders of various superiors.

And that’s where the problems come in. The Times recently sought information on a firearm that was used in the commission of a felony that placed many people in danger. The felony – two shootings that occurred the week before last – were in the police department’s jurisdiction. We asked for information on the weapons used, which authorities had acknowledged were stolen, as part of the newspaper’s ongoing initiative to address gun violence on local streets.

Because the record was related to the police department’s investigation of that incident, we were told it was likely we would receive little more than letterhead with a few words and the rest stricken out by black marks. Not wishing to put the police department’s resources through unnecessary work in return for something unusual, we rescinded the request and chose a different route.

We received information that the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office took the initial stolen gun report, we are not sure when, and would therefore have held the initial report of the theft.

We were told that the record would not be produced, and that even if it was, the name of the person whose gun was stolen would not be released. Other than a broad provision that details of a case may be released at a law enforcement agency’s discretion, nothing in state law says the identity of a theft victim is off-limits to public scrutiny.

As we have maintained many times in the recent past, gun owners who do not properly secure their weapons are culpable morally if not in any other way for the violence that plagues our streets, even if our elected officials are too bound by dogma to institute penalties for such failures.

Claiming that information about the theft would not be released because of an “ongoing investigation,” on orders of a ranking officer, the request was denied.

Even if the theft of the weapon was ongoing, the initial report information – including the victim’s identity – should be released in accordance with provisions in the law addressing the same.

An agency’s policy does not trump state law. But out lawmakers have been far too accommodating in their dismemberment of the applicable laws, allowing loopholes that go beyond the understandable need for discretion in some cases. •