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Computer crash does not justify withholding records

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         KENTUCKY         Freedom of Information         Sep 12, 2002    

Computer crash does not justify withholding records

  • The police agency must fix its computer record-keeping procedures, rather than denying access to the records, according to an attorney general opinion.

A computer crash was no excuse for the Elsmere Police Department’s decision to deny records, the Attorney General’s Office said in an August opinion. The office released an opinion Aug. 21 stating that the Elsmere Police Department’s efforts to retrieve information requested under the state’s Open Records Act were “inadequate.”

The opinion, based on a complaint filed by Chris Henson of Covington, Ky., addressed whether the Elsmere Police Department violated the Open Records Act when it denied Henson’s May 12, 2002 request for information, citing a computer system crash.

“Our computers crashed, records were lost for everybody, not just Henson,” said Robert Carran, attorney for the Elsmere Police Department. Because of a virus, the “records on the computer system were destroyed and not retrievable.”

But according to Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver, the Elsmere Police Department neglected to follow proper procedure after its system crashed.

“Inability of a requestor to obtain information reflects poor records management,” she said. “Electronic record-keeping is to enhance access, not to impede access.”

But this type of denial is not uncommon, said Brant Houston, executive director of Columbia, Mo.- based Investigative Reporters and Editors, an organization that helps journalists access and use government databases.

“When government agencies like a police department have no back-up files, it’s a serious FOI problem,” Houston said.

In Kentucky, proper procedure includes informing the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives that the records were destroyed.

Bensenhaver wrote that KDLA received no destruction certificate from the Elsmere Police Department. Carran confirmed that the police department has not yet notified the KDLA, nor had the KDLA taken steps to contact the department.

The police department has 30 days to either comply with the Aug. 21 opinion or appeal it.

Carran said the police department has not yet decided what it will do.


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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