What happened to the police blotter?

You might notice the Bainbridge police blotter is a bit short on detail this week.

That’s because the Bainbridge Island Police Department has a new policy of withholding narrative descriptions from the incident reports they make available to the press on a weekly basis. In place of a narrative is a one- to two-sentence summary.

Access to incident narratives, which provide the bulk of a report’s information, now require that the Kitsap Sun and other members of the press file a public records request for each incident.

The police have up to five days to respond with either the records or an estimate of how long it may take to release the records.

In essence, the press will now receive much less information than in the past unless we go through a time-consuming records request process. The one- or two-hour task of reviewing and reporting on the weekly log of incidents could now take a week or more.

Why the change in policy?

Bainbridge Commander Sue Shultz said she, City Attorney Jack Johnson and Police Chief Jon Fehlman determined that providing less information makes the department more efficient.

“We have less staff to work with,” Shultz said. “This is a way to slim down the product.”

The policy change came after the Kitsap Sun questioned Bainbridge police’s redaction policy, pointing out that it was inconsistent with open records laws.

State law allows police to black out the names and personal information of victims and juvenile suspects on police reports. However, Bainbridge police have had a policy of blacking out all names, all personal information, all street addresses – even the names of businesses, brands, prescription drug makers and consumer products. Vehicle brands were left in, but prescription drug brand names were almost always blacked out.

The scope of redacted information has grown through the years, making a report’s narrative difficult and sometimes impossible to follow.

We cited the relevant state laws and asked that changes be made and obtained an opinion from the state Attorney General’s office that reinforced our position.

We also suggested that redacting less information may actually save police time. Reports from weekends are often unavailable to the press on Mondays because of the amount of redacting police clerks were required to do.

We stressed that the Bremerton and Port Orchard police and the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office all provide information in a similar open manner without requiring a formal public records request.

After about a month of discussions with Bainbridge police, Shultz notified us her department would alter its procedure to better comply with state open records laws.

We agreed with her that the names of witnesses, victims, social security numbers and narratives involving children and ongoing investigations should be withheld.

We were surprised, then, to find that the narratives were withheld when we next checked the stack of reports.

Shultz said the city attorney’s review of open records laws indicated that the department is not required to provide the narratives unless we file a records request.

The attorney’s reading is legally correct. However, the relationship between newspapers and police departments has often allowed reporters to read reports without filing a public records request to obtain each narrative. That type of agreement is in the interest of helping journalists report on the community fully and accurately, and minimizes the time spent by police clerks in redacting information or handling public records requests.

In the interest of transparency, and in continuing to provide readers the same level of coverage, we plan to file the requests on each incomplete report we believe may contain valuable information.

We are not accusing Bainbridge police of stonewalling us beyond what the law allows, but we are questioning why a change in procedure is necessary. We’ll continue to work with police to answer that question. The change does make our job more difficult to do, and we hope to find a solution that does not affect what our readers expect from us, and from its police department.

One thought on “What happened to the police blotter?

  1. Was just thinking of all that paper work. What with you filling out all those public record requests for every incident report, and then the Bainbridge Island Police Department processing each of those public record requests, for every incident….
    If you would like some help filling out public record requests Mr Baurick, I’d be happy to lend a hand 😉

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