High court chides police department for denying records
OHIO–An early-September decision by the Ohio Supreme Court does not exempt all internal investigative records of the Columbus Police Department from the state open records act’s disclosure requirements, according to a unanimous decision by the state’s high court in mid- April.
The police department’s use of the court’s earlier decision, State ex rel. Steckman v. Jackson, to deny a records request for internal affairs records was improper because the exemption only applies to investigative records related to pending criminal prosecutions, the court said. Intentional misuse of the exemption by police might lead the court to abolish the exemption, the court warned.
The case stemmed from the department’s mid-February denial of a request by Police Officers for Equal Rights to see internal investigative records of the Columbus Police Department pertaining to police discipline procedures.
The department claimed that Steckman exempts internal-affairs investigations from the disclosure requirements of the state open records act, but none of the records the organization sought involved pending criminal proceedings.
The civil rights group filed a motion in late March asking the Ohio Supreme Court to compel the officials to provide access to the documents. The court instructed the department to release the records without further delay and ordered city officials to pay the organization’s attorney fees.
The court said the department’s action could be construed as intentionally disregarding the Steckman court’s repeated statements that the investigative exception applies only to pending criminal proceedings. “Steckman was designed to be used as a shield — not a sword,” the court explained. Citing the case in order “to deny records that are clearly public and not exempt under any of the exceptions [to the open records act] borders itself on the criminal,” the court said. (State ex re. Police Officers for Equal Rights v. Lashutka; Media Counsel: Frederick Gittes, Columbus)