By Terry Anderson
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications
Some Kentucky State Police posts routinely refuse to provide information that should be public, or ignore requests for information from local reporters, according to a survey of newspapers and broadcast stations.
Kentucky Citizens for Open Government surveyed news outlets in the state after the attorney general’s office said state police had “repeatedly violated” the Kentucky Open Records Act in a homicide case. (See 10-ORD-123 at http://www.ag.ky.gov/civil/orom/list.htm.)
Most of those surveyed said the KSP was generally good about releasing information, but slow, and nine of the 25 news executives who responded to the survey complained of difficulty in getting information from one or more of the KSP’s 16 regional posts.
“It’s consistently a pain to make it happen,” one news executive replied, and another described the local post’s information officer as “all but useless.”
Lt. David Jude, head of the KSP’s Media Relations Branch, said in an e-mailed statement, “Admittedly, we do continue to have relationship issues between our personnel and the media.” He said the agency “fully respects” its relationship with journalists, and “We believe in the mission of the media. . . . We train our cadets, first-line supervisors and telecommunications supervisors in what can be released to the media, how to work and understand the media and why this relationship is so important.”
The journalists said the state police’s reactions to requests for information varied widely among the posts. Each post has a designated, specially trained public affairs officer, but KSP spokesman John Hawkins said media outlets always have another option to obtain information. “There’s always somebody there for them to talk to.”
However, Timothy Kiger, publisher of the Grayson County News-Gazette in Leitchfield, said, “More often than not, it’s ‘the officer is off duty’ and there’s nobody else to give information. And when they do give information it’s only the barest tidbits. It’s like the proverbial blue wall.”
The widely varying replies to the survey indicated significant differences in the responsiveness of individual posts.
“We have not had any open-records issues with Post 2,” near Madisonville, said Tom Clinton, executive editor of The Messenger, the daily newspaper in Madisonville. “The degree of cooperation I have experienced during my 32 years as editor here has been largely determined by the post commander at the time.”
Clinton added, “The KSP is stretched pretty thin these days and getting timely information is always problematic when the officers have more pressing priorities.” In phone interviews, public affairs officers at several posts said they had additional duties. Even Jude, as chief spokesman for the KSP, is also designated head of the Highway Safety Program.
Phyllis McLaughlin, editor of the Trimble Banner in Bedford, said Post 5 at La Grange is “getting better, but they are far more reluctant to give information than any other law enforcement agency I’ve ever worked with anywhere else in my 25 years (as a journalist).”
Some editors were bluntly critical. Post 7 at Richmond is “all but useless,” said Michael Broihier, editor of The Interior Journal in Stanford. “Every day we get faxes about things that happen in surrounding counties, but never, ever to do we get one about Lincoln (County) without asking for it repeatedly.” Broihier said Trooper Chris Lanham, the post’s public affairs officer, had told him there “wasn’t room” for his newspaper’s fax number on the office fax machine and refused to take Broihier’s e-mail address. He said other requests for information on specific cases had been ignored.
Lanham acknowledged that the post had received complaints about him. “We’ve discussed this at post level in the past. A lot of times I’m not available because of other commitments – something might happen and the press not (get) information. A lot of times things happen and I’m not aware of them.”
Lanham said that he now has two “backups” at the post who can take inquiries. “That’s what we’ve done to try to alleviate those concerns from the media. It’s fairly new, but so far, so good.” He said other posts are now doing the same thing.
Sharon Burton, publisher and editor of the Adair County Community Voice, said the KSP’s Post 15 in her town of Columbia responds poorly to information requests.
Burton said in July that an officer at the post refused to give one of her reporters accident reports, contending that state law made such reports available only to the people involved and insurance companies. She called back and pointed out a section of the law that makes the reports available to news media. “The post captain then called me back and said we are entitled to the documents but I would need to send a request to Frankfort letting them know what I needed,” Burton wrote. “When I asked if I could get the reports the same day, he put me on hold then returned to tell me they have three days to respond. I sent an official open records request and am awaiting the response, but of course it will be past deadline for the current edition.”
Burton said she filed a records request with state police headquarters, then got a letter “telling me they have 10 days to transmit accident reports into the accident-report database and the ones I requested are not yet available.” She was incredulous. She said she finally got the reports Aug. 17. The accidents occurred on July 22 and 25.
The four other papers in the Columbia post area that responded to the survey gave the KSP favorable ratings. “We definitely try to keep the public informed,” post spokesman Bill Gregory said. “All media outlets have my cell phone number.” He noted that the post has an assistant public affairs officer, and said news people are often in a hurry, but that “our deadlines aren’t newspaper or radio deadlines.”
Jude blamed the initial negative response to Burton’s request on “an administrative specialist,” and added that “if the request had been referred to the public affairs officer or supervisor, I feel that a better resolution would have been reached.”
Jude confirmed that while officers may give out information orally to a reporter, when a request for an actual copy of a police report is made, there may be up to a 10-day delay for the report to be put into the KSP system, then up to a three-day wait allowed by the open-records law.
“It is understandable that a media outlet would become frustrated with these timelines when general information is all that was sought,” he said in an interview.
Requiring that a report be placed in the database before it is released is “silly,” said Jon Fleischaker of Louisville, a lawyer who has worked on open-records cases for Kentucky news outlets for decades.
“Where they get the 10-day thing, I don’t know,” Fleischaker said. “I don’t know what their internal systems are, but they have it at the post right away. I guarantee you if they have something good (to report) it’s going to get out (without waiting 10 days).” Fleischaker said he was not surprised about the complaints. “The best thing I can say about the state police over the years is that they’re inconsistent. It depends on what you’re asking for. If there’s stuff out there they don’t want you to know, they’re very bad.”
He said journalists’ requests to the state police for information “often result in a run-around – little bits and pieces are given out but they are not fair, complete and consistent.
“Some people are trying hard, but the ones who really control the information won’t give it out if they don’t want to.”
Jennifer Brislin, spokeswoman for the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, which oversees the state police and its public-affairs officers, said, “We’re very pleased with the level of information released. If there is a case-by-case (problem), we’ll deal with it that way.”
Jude said, “I try to impress up on them that if time and the situation allows, provide basic information (as) to locations and what we are doing.” He said detailed responses should come from public affairs officers. “This is an ongoing process that we continue to work with. It seems in my travels that once the reporter or media outlet get to the proper person, we get the information out.”
Terry Anderson, former Middle East bureau chief of The Associated Press, is a lecturer in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky and also works for the school’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.