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Newspaper wins right to inspect a clean incident report

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  1. Freedom of Information
From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 37.

From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 37.

The state Supreme Court granted the Beacon Journal Publishing Co. the right to inspect an unredacted copy of a police incident report which had been withheld regarding a shooting by an officer. Police had claimed that the report was exempt from disclosure because the officer involved was not charged.

A deputy sheriff transcribed taped statements from police officers at the scene of the February 1999 shooting and included a transcript with the incident report. Sheriff Thomas Maurer released the report to the Akron Beacon Journal, but only after striking the names of all of the officers — those involved in the shooting and those who witnessed it.

Maurer claimed the records were “‘confidential law enforcement investigatory records’ because their disclosure would present a high probability of disclosing the identity of an uncharged suspect.” In Ohio, law enforcement records are exempt from the open records law if there is a “high probability” that their release would disclose the “identity of a suspect who has not been charged with the offense to which the record pertains.”

A court of appeals ruled in January 2000 that the sheriff could withhold the name of the shooting officer as an “uncharged suspect,” but required the release of other names in the report.

On Feb. 14, the state Supreme Court reversed and ordered the release of the report to the newspaper with all of the police officers’ names included. The court determined that the incident reports are not a confidential law enforcement record because they “initiate criminal investigations but are not part of the investigation.” Because incident reports are public record under Ohio state law, the court noted that the sheriff cannot “now remove the ‘public records cloak'” simply because an officer decided to include the identity of an uncharged suspect in an otherwise public record.

The Akron Beacon Journal requested the report one month after a Wayne County sheriff deputy shot Robert G. Huffman following a four-hour standoff in a cemetery near Shreve, Ohio, 50 miles southwest of Cleveland. According to stories in the Journal, Huffman began the day planning to “take hostages at the Daily Record newspaper and then die in a hail of police bullets to publicize a legal battle over child support payments.” Huffman retreated to the cemetery after his boss tipped off the Wooster Police Department and he learned the newspaper office was closed.

After talking to Huffman for four hours over a CB radio, officers learned he wanted to be killed by police officers because suicide was against his religious beliefs. He also told police that he was upset with his former wife and depressed after the loss of his 14-year-old daughter in a house fire 10 years ago, the newspaper reported.

When police approached Huffman’s truck, he pointed a handgun at them. The officers fired two shots at Huffman, the last one killing him. After an internal police investigation, no officers were charged in the incident because the “use of deadly force was appropriate and consistent with departmental policy,” according to a brief filed by Maurer. — CC