Reporter discovers wall of resistance, outright refusals

By LAURA LEVAAS, Courier staff writer

Evansville Courier

February 22, 1998

My participation as a requester in the statewide Open Record Project proved one thing: People just don't know the law, even law enforcement officials.

Employees of county health departments were the most cooperative; they took my money without question and made copies of whatever materials I requested without a second glance.

But law enforcement officials and school corporation employees simply refused to let me look at documents or, at best, grudgingly revealed their records.

In Gibson County, the Sheriff's Department secretary could not understand why I refused to give my name and purpose for requesting to see the crime log. The sheriff said the facility didn't keep a crime log for "just anyone" who wanted to view it, but he presented a "media" log with an accompanying incident report for a vandalism incident after I presented him the state law.

In Warrick County officials said the law enforcement center did not keep a crime log, but would charge a fee for an officer to conduct document research for a particular incident, a search that could take up to two weeks.

The Posey County's sheriff's office kept a disorganized crime log that was accessible to the public, but officials said "only reporters" ever looked at the clipboard filled with overflowing incident reports.

During each of my visits to a law enforcement agency, secretaries or officials demanded to know my name, the purpose of my visit and if I was a reporter.

At a few places I gave my name, but never revealed where I worked because I was instructed by my newspaper to act as an ordinary citizen.

In Posey County, a school corporation representative said he let me view the minutes because he "had the authority to" but not because he "had to." He told me I was not permitted to view school board minutes unless I was a resident of the county, but when presented with the open records law, he let me view them.

The most curious experience I had was with the Warrick County School Corp. The Courier had sent me to Warrick County offices because I was a summer intern and had the least chance of being recognized as a reporter.

Unfortunately, I ran into the superintendent as he was leaving the building one afternoon and suddenly remembered that I had covered a special four-hour meeting of the Warrick County school board at the beginning of my internship. I knew that the superintendent would recognize me because I was the only reporter at that meeting, and everyone had groaned about staying there for so many hours.

He greeted me, but I managed to make it to his office without talking to him or anyone else. The superintendent's secretary was fully cooperative -- she had two bound copies of meeting minutes out and was making room for me at a nearby table so I could view them and take notes -- when she got a phone call.

She asked me my name and who I was affiliated with (while talking on the phone) and relayed each answer to the person on the other line -- the superintendent. He had recognized me and wanted to know the purpose of my visit. He had called his secretary from another phone to find out what I was doing there.

When I refused to give my affiliation or the purpose of my visit, she became visibly upset, told the superintendent I wouldn't answer the questions and, after hanging up the phone, picked up all the minutes and left the room.

She returned about 10 minutes later -- which pushed my visit to 4 p.m., the office closing time -- and told me that I must fill out a records request form and that I would have to return the next day.

When I returned the next day, the superintendent explained that filling out the records request was a formality and required for their record-keeping (even though at first the secretary hadn't asked me to fill out the request the previous day).

The only common experience woven through each of my visits to law enforcement agencies and school corporation offices was their frustration when I wouldn't give my name or place of employment -- even when quoted Indiana code that stated I didn't have to reveal either.

© 1998 The E.W. Scripps Co.

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