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Ohio high court finds privacy rights trump access in police records case

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday affirmed a lower court’s decision denying The Cincinnati Enquirer access to personally identifying information regarding…

The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday affirmed a lower court’s decision denying The Cincinnati Enquirer access to personally identifying information regarding police officers involved in a shootout with a motorcycle gang. Citing the officers' constitutional right of privacy, the court found those portions of requested records identifying particular officers were exempt from disclosure under the state public records law.

In 2010, during a raid on a perceived outlaw motorcycle gang bar takeover, two Cincinnati police officers were wounded and a member of the Iron Horsemen motorcycle gang was killed. In the aftermath, Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher received information that the gang members might attempt to retaliate against officers involved in the incident.

Following the raid, the Enquirer requested records related to the incident from the police department. It sought the names and personnel files of the wounded officers, as well as an unredacted copy of the incident report. The department partially denied the request with Streicher stating, “We are not releasing the names of any of the officers involved in this incident due to the sensitive nature of their assignments and the sensitive nature of the investigation.” However, the Enquirer was offered redacted copies of requested records.

The newspaper argued that the city presented no true evidence of a "real threat" against its officers, that the court failed to focus on the lack of any threat from disclosure to it and that the redacted information sought was not sufficiently sensitive so as to require redaction.

The court disagreed. It found that the lack of a threat from the requesting party did not exclude the possibility of the information still being utilized by those intent on exacting revenge. The court also agreed with Streicher's belief that a legitimate threat did in fact exist and that this was sufficient reason to protect officer names. Finally, the court determined that sufficient information had already been provided to the Enquirer, though the documents for the newspaper to conduct a meaningful review of the incident.

John Greiner, who represented the Enquirer in the case, noted the importance of receiving all of the information from the police department. “The names of the officers are important for related cases. Without them, there is no ability to link the officers to any events in the future, or to any questions of misconduct or the precipitous nature of the officers involved in the shooting. There was not a proper evidentiary showing to warrant withholding the information; this decision seems to show a regression from past decisions.”

Greiner was further disappointed over the implications of the ruling. “The decision of the court can be used as a means for more police discretion in matters of the press requesting information, and that shouldn’t be the case.”

Legal counsel for the city could not be reached for comment.