By ALAN JULIAN, Courier staff writer
February 22, 1998
As far as Warrick County Sheriff Bruce Hargrave is concerned, public records in his department are open and available.
Yet when a reporter posing as a member of the general public asked to view Hargrave’s crime log last summer, she was denied access even though state law clearly calls for that information to be public.
"If you were denied, it was probably a mistake by an employee," Hargrave said when told of the incident. "We understand that just about every record we generate is public."
The same scenario played out in sheriffs’ offices throughout Southwestern Indiana last summer .
As part of a statewide project involving seven newspapers, Courier reporters and interns were instructed to visit county offices and request public records they are entitled to see under state law. They were instructed not to identify themselves and not to explain why they wanted to see the records.
They found that most sheriffs’ departments were reluctant to provide information without knowing who their visitors were and why they wanted the information.
But in follow-up interviews, many sheriffs claimed to have an open records policy and said they instruct their employees to provide public information when requested.
The contradiction between policy and reality seems to grow out of a widespread difference of opinion over what actually constitutes a public record and who is entitled to it.
One of the most dramatic encounters last summer was in Pike County, where Sheriff Jeff Clements says he, too, is complying with the state’s open records law. But when Jamie Jones, an intern for The Courier, asked to see the sheriff’s crime log, Clements ran a license check on her car without her knowledge. He then demanded to see her driver’s license before asking why she was driving a car not licensed in her name.
In the end, he gave her the crime log.
Clements later said it’s not his common practice to run such a check, but Ms. Jones wouldn’t tell him who she was or why she wanted the information.
Clements explained that he was preparing for a drug raid that ultimately netted 46 suspects in a five-county area.
"We had a drug investigation going on, and she could have been one of the people we were investigating," said Clements. "If, four months later, someone said `we had a leak’ I would have at least known who she was."
He said the encounter with Ms. Jones was the first time a stranger has ever walked into his office and asked to see the crime log. He said he would do the same thing again under the same circumstances.
A reporter’s anonymous request for a daily crime log also was denied in Vanderburgh County, but Chief Deputy Sheriff Brad Ellsworth said later there must have been some misunderstanding.
Ellsworth said his department maintains an extensive "media log," which is available to the news media as well as the general public.
"If they asked for a `daily log,’ we might not have known what they were referring to," said Ellsworth. "We call it the media log simply because you guys are the only ones who ever ask for it."
The log contains information on arrests, reported crimes and probable cause affidavits. A follow-up inspection of the media log showed that it included a line that read "for bona-fide media only."
"We’re willing to look at anything we might need to do differently to fully comply" with the law, said Ellsworth.
In Gibson County, Sheriff Joe Ballard said he also has an open records policy.
During last summer’s test, Ballard asked a Courier intern her name and if she was a member of the media .
But Ballard later said being a member of the media isn’t a criterion for determining who gets to see the department’s media log. In fact the reporter didn’t supply her name or identify herself as a news reporter, but she still got a media log.
"It’s public record," said Ballard. "I was just curious who she was … I’d ask anyone that question."
He said he thought the information contained in the media log is everything required by law, and he noted that the log is regularly sent by fax to the local news media.
In Perry County, Sheriff Jon Deer said he was surprised to learn his department had turned down a request to see a crime log. He said it’s possible a new employee may not have known whether it was proper to make the log public.
"It’s all open; it’s public record," said Deer.
He added that he would not agree to turn over information in an ongoing investigation, or the names of juveniles.
Some Indiana sheriffs don’t believe they are obligated to make their crime log available to the public.
In Lawrence County, Sheriff Jerry Ross demanded a subpoena before he would comply with a request to see his department’s crime log. Then, after being shown a copy of the state law that says crime logs are public, he still denied the request.
"The law must be wrong," said Ross.
© 1998 The E.W. Scripps Co.