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Media survey rates government openness

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    NMU         SOUTH DAKOTA         Freedom of Information         Sep 25, 2002    

Media survey rates government openness

  • A statewide audit conducted by several media organizations and reported by South Dakota media in late September found that while many government agencies were willing to turn over public records, law enforcement officials rarely complied with records requests.

When it comes to access to public records, most South Dakota government agencies fare well while law enforcement agencies regularly resist requests, a statewide survey found.

The unannounced audit of public records’ accessibility conducted June 26 found that most South Dakota city, county and state agencies complied with the state’s public records law. When asked for documents law enforcement officials complied in fewer than one out of four instances.

Representatives from 11 South Dakota newspapers and The Associated Press dispatched requesters across the state’s 66 counties to test the availability of public records. Requesters ranged from college interns to press operators, all making requests as ordinary citizens for specific information such as tax assessment records, athletic director’s salaries, police logs and crime incident reports.

It took one day for the 64 representatives to canvass the state. They traveled approximately 10,000 miles and spent $20.44 for the copying costs. The results of the project were published Sept. 24.

According to the South Dakota Associated Press Managing Editors, the goal of the project was to check how easily an ordinary person could access public documents.

The results revealed that although tax, school and city government documents are easily accessible to the public, law enforcement information is not.

Only 14 percent of the sheriff’s offices tested complied with specific information requests. Police stations around the state complied 23 percent of the time. In all law enforcement cases, participants asked for the previous day’s police log or incident reports. In most cases, petitioners encountered difficulty obtaining that information.

In McCook County, a man requesting information was interrogated by the police chief and threatened with jail time if he returned without press credentials. He never obtained the records.

“South Dakota is a not a large state, and it’s not often that instances arise in which average citizens request police logs,” said David Bordewyk, general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, explaining the law enforcement results.

In addition, Bordewyk added, the entire project occurred after September 11. Since that time, requests have faced heightened scrutiny, especially requests made by non-media.

Dohrer hopes the results of the audit will increase public awareness so that both citizens and government officials understand what records are open.

LF


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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