A few days ago, a newspaper called to ask me about the response it received to a request to the local police department about all incident reports for the past month. Incident reports, of course, are open records under the sunshine law. In fact, the sunshine law defines an incident report as "a record of a law enforcement agency consisting of the date, time, specific location, name of the victim and immediate facts and circumstances surrounding the initial report of a crime or incident, including any logs of reported crimes, accidents and complaints maintained by that agency."
But, the truth is that getting your hands on an incident report is harder than it might seem. This reporter asked for a month's worth. Did he get a stack of reports showing all the incident calls? No, he got a spread sheet, one page (actually less than a page) in length, showing there were 3100 building checks, 49 warnings, 45 escorts, 7 arrests, 2 stealing of under $500, six assists to other departments, 6 disturbances, 5 false alarms, 14 ambulance calls, 2 juvenile contacts, and a few other miscellaneous matters. It's titled the "monthly activity" report.
Does that meet the standard of an "incident report" under the statute? Of course not. While case law says that the report does not need to contain more than the statute requires, it certainly isn't an incident report unless it contains the minimum, which is the date, time, place, name of victim and immediate facts and circumstances of the matter. None of those things are in this report. This police department doesn't have a clue what an incident report is under the law and providing a report like this is proof that this department needs some significant sunshine law training.
This is not, of course, a rare occurrance. In fact, after months of complanining by the local paper, I know of one police department (not this one) that has had intervention from the state Attorney General's office to assist ironing out the problems that department has had in providing incident reports that meet the statutory requirement in a timely fashion.
I understand that when new folks come into a public office, they sometimes are learning the ropes and there are issues explaining sunshine law matters to them. But it would seem to me that any police department would have systems in place to produce the required reports and if they've decided to scrap incident reports as a means of economizing the office, someone needs to explain to that department that you cannot ignore state law in an effort to do more with less. There are still some legal requirements that must be met and it's not a matter of making private matters public when you tell those who pay the police department's salary what the officers are doing with their time while on the job.