Louisiana Public Records Act: Police Privacy


Louisiana Public Records Act: Police Privacy

Postby Guest » Thu Mar 23, 2006 11:17 pm

Hudspeth shooting highlights ongoing dispute over police record requests
March 18, 2006

By Joel Anderson
The Shreveport Times

(Editor’s note: Newspapers, broadcasters and others are celebrating Sunshine Week, emphasizing the importance of open government to the public. The Times and shreveporttimes.com is featuring stories this week about why open government is important to everyone, not just journalists.)

In those contentious months after Marquise Hudspeth was shot and killed in a convenience store parking lot by two Shreveport police officers, the final frantic days of his life were aired to the public.

Hudspeth had been fired from his job in Bossier City a month earlier; he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault against his wife later that day; and hours before his fateful confrontation with police a month later, his wife had kicked him out of the house because of his apparent involvement with another woman.

But three years after Hudspeth was killed in that parking lot, little is known about the officers -- Michael Armstrong, Denver Ramsey and Steven Hathorn -- who were involved in the fatal shooting.

Their personnel files have never been disclosed by the Shreveport Police Department despite several legal challenges. The department claimed an exemption under state law that allows it to bar access to files pertaining to ongoing police investigations.

"Basically, it's what the law says. We don't make the laws, we uphold the law," Shreveport Police Chief Mike Campbell said. "I think those particular situations, it's a law for a reason. It's not whether you agree or disagree, but in many cases those laws are made for a purpose."

In general, residents in Louisiana have unfettered access to government-generated records like traffic accident reports, jail booking logs and crime statistics. Other records, such as lists of parents who haven't made child support payments in the past six months and registered sex offenders are available on the Shreveport Police Department's Web site.

But information gathered during the course of a law enforcement investigation or internal affairs records are generally not available to the public.

"Case law has talked about agencies needing to be able to have self-critical analysis," Shreveport city attorney Ed Jones said, "and needing to keep that private to allow officials to have that ability to police themselves."

Shreveport and Bossier City police departments say that withholding information during a criminal investigation, like not releasing the name of a suspect until an arrest, can ultimately help protect residents, too.

"Anybody can be accused of anything," Shreveport police spokeswoman Kacee Hargrave said. "Unless there's probable cause to make an arrest, then releasing someone's name could be completely damaging to their reputation."

Giving out information during an investigation could also prove harmful to the prosecutors' case in court, Hargrave said.

"There's a balance between getting a suspect behind bars and keeping them there," she said, "and the public's right to know."

But it was the controversial death of Hudspeth in March 2003 that raised -- and still raises -- concerns about whether too much information was being suppressed by law enforcement agencies.

"There should not be a system in place where nobody checks nobody," said James Pannell, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. "Who are they protecting and who are they serving?"

A few months after Hudspeth's death, The Times filed suit against Campbell, then the interim police chief, and the city of Shreveport after being denied requests for access to documents involving complaints, internal investigations and findings in favor or against the officers.

City attorneys argued that public access to the files would reveal investigative techniques of the internal affairs bureau and operational procedures of Shreveport police. The police officer's Bill of Rights, included in state law, also restricts access to an officer's personnel file, though how far that restriction goes is a matter of contention.

Caddo District Court Judge Roy Brun initially ruled the records didn't have to be disclosed publicly. The case remains unresolved.

To this day, few details are known about the history of the officers involved in Hudspeth's shooting.r>
According to the Shreveport police's personnel department, Armstrong started working at the department in July 2002 and now works in the uniform support division for crime scenes. Hathorn, a four-year Shreveport police veteran, works in uniform services, Shift D.

As for Ramsey, he was fired by the police department seven months after the Hudspeth shooting for violating departmental policy in an off-duty incident. Campbell said at the time that Ramsey had faced disciplinary issues before, which included suspensions, but couldn't comment any further.

Attempts by the Times to locate Ramsey, who had worked at the department for nearly eight years, were unsuccessful.

David Szwak, an attorney with the Shreveport-based firm of Bodenheimer, Jones and Szwak, says that some basic information about the officers could be made public, such as the number of complaints raised against them and when they happened.

"If it were me, I would be arguing that the Public Records Act would not prevent me from gaining access to these records," said Szwak, who specializes in information practices and privacy.

But as the case continues to wind its way through the courts three years later, many critics of the police department have softened their rhetoric since those tension-filled days following Hudspeth's death.
Pannell said he understands the department's concerns about releasing the information about the officers, but emphasized that their accountability to the public should take precedence.

"I don't expect the officers to say anything different. They're supposed to have that position," Pannell said. "I would have that position if I was in trouble and in that situation, too."

Pannell said that since Campbell took over as police chief on a permanent basis in January 2004, there's been more dialogue between the department and the community.

"It's been a remarkable improvement," Pannell said. He then offered a warning: "But our future should not depend solely on who the police chief is or may not be."

While deflecting much of the credit, Campbell said he is proud of the strides the police department has made in communicating with the community since the Hudspeth shooting. He also emphasized that the healing process is far from over.

"We made a lot of efforts to get back in touch with the community," Campbell said. "The whole incident was unfortunate for everyone involved. It opened our eyes. And it led to an improvement in the way we do things."

©The Times
March 18, 2006


Postby Guest » Thu Mar 23, 2006 11:19 pm

State law blocks viewing of police internal investigations
March 16, 2006

Editor’s note: Newspapers, broadcasters and others are celebrating Sunshine Week, emphasizing the importance of open government to the public. The Times and shreveporttimes.com this week are featuring stories that drive dialogue about why open government is important to everyone, not just to journalists.

By Francis McCabe

Shreveport officials say they would be breaking state law if they opened past records on internal police investigations.

"This is not a decision the police or the mayor can make," Ed Jones, assistant city attorney, said. "It's not a matter of whether we want to open up the records. It's a matter of following the law with respect to an officer's rights to privacy."

Jones explained Louisiana's Constitution offers a broad privacy protection to individuals, more so than the federal Constitution.

"And it applies to all public employees, not just police and firefighters," Jones said. Public employees have a right to privacy of their personal records, he said.

One of two things would have to happen to change that, Jones said. The state Legislature would have to amend the state Constitution or pertinent case law would have to overrule a long litany of jurisprudence that supports it, he said.

Despite the plethora of case law and legislative statues, Gannett, parent company of The Times, sued Police Chief Mike Campbell, the Shreveport Police Department and the city in July 2003 to gain access to complaints by residents against police officers and other department personnel over a three-year period. Up to that point, The Times had repeatedly asked to see such records and had been summarily denied by the department.

A month later, a Caddo District Court judge denied The Times' motion, ruling in favor of the city.

Gannett was the first to sue the city over a public records cause in years, Jones said.

Meanwhile a state legislator has designs on reintroducing a public disclosure bill that would disclose incidents of police conduct.

"I have received a number of calls and am evaluating our chances of success," state Sen. Lydia Jackson said.

Jackson introduced such legislation in 2003. It died on the Senate floor.

"I think increasingly citizens are demanding transparency and accountability from all agencies of government," the senator said. "And as much as we support law enforcement services, they too should have to be responsive to that same accountability because ultimately they work for the taxpayers.

"We are seeing allegations of misconduct are beginning to cross all socioeconomic and racial lines," Jackson said. In other words it's not just black and underprivileged residents who are having problems with police, she said.

In the meantime, the Police Department has made several changes to make the process of filing a police complaint less intimidating.

The Internal Affairs Bureau changed the way it responded to citizen complaints, beginning with a move that put the bureau in a separate building -- from the department at 1234 Texas Ave. to the City Annex across the street.

An internal investigation begins with a signed affidavit by the complainant and a discussion with an investigator.

Once the complaint is lodged, investigators begin looking into the incident by viewing police videotape and talking to those mentioned in the complaint to determine if there is a potential violation.

A letter is then sent letting the complainant know the investigation has begun.

Investigators have 60 days to determine the facts pertaining to the investigation, after which they send those and their recommendations directly to the police chief, who can either send the case back for additional investigation or can make the final determination.

A second letter is sent to the complainant informing them the investigation is complete. The public is not allowed to know what discipline the officer receives because it is part of their personal record, unless the officer appeals to the Civil Service Board, where it becomes public record.

©The Times
March 16, 2006

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