The following editorial appeared in The (Sharon) Herald, a CNHI newspaper. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune-Democrat.
More than a decade ago, legislators rewrote Pennsylvania’s anemic public information laws, widely regarded as among the nation’s weakest.
A new state right-to-know law, which widened public access to most government records, took effect in 2009.
By creating unprecedented presumption of access to government records, the new legislation rightly put the burden on government to show why public records should not be released.
Pennsylvania’s new public information law, however, had one glaring weakness: It failed to cover police records. Criminal investigations and even police incident reports have continued to hide in the dark corners of this state’s right-to-know laws.
In fact, access to police records in Pennsylvania is even narrower now than it was before 2008, said Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association attorney Melissa Melewsky.
Today, as law enforcement agencies nationwide come under growing scrutiny, the exemption for police records is especially troubling. Transparency and accountability are essential to community trust.
People need to know how police agencies operate and how effective and fair they are in enforcing the law.
When police wrongdoing is alleged, the public needs a way to sort out facts from fiction.
To be sure, releasing certain investigatory records before a police investigation is done could taint the outcome. When an investigation is over, however, records should become public.
Simple police incident reports should always be open to the public. Concealing such records just raises suspicions and concerns that might be entirely unwarranted.
A case reported in August by The New Castle News is a minor but telling example. A domestic incident involving an off-duty New Castle police officer and his girlfriend included allegations that the officer pinned her down, squeezed her face and forced her out of the house.
The officer told state police that he tossed his girlfriend’s car keys into a neighbor’s yard because she was drunk.
The officer was neither charged nor arrested.
To determine what happened, the New Castle News requested a Pennsylvania State Police incident report and investigation.
State police officials rejected the request, even though the investigation was closed. By doing so, they either enabled an unsubstantiated rumor to stand, or permitted a police officer who should have been terminated to continue working.
This isn’t just about the media, which have no special rights to information. In a democracy, the government belongs to the people, who pay the salaries of everyone government employs. In general, public records should remain open to everyone.
Legislators took a sizable step in 2008 toward open government by rewriting Pennsylvania’s public information laws.
By omitting police records from the reforms, however, they left much undone.
In the remaining days of the 2020 legislative session, or the early days of 2021, legislators ought to finish the job they started more than a decade ago: Open police records to the public.