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Records audit of county sheriffs shows spotty compliance

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    NMU         MISSISSIPPI         Freedom of Information         Jan 4, 2002    

Records audit of county sheriffs shows spotty compliance

  • Journalists and open-government advocates found only 17 of 36 county sheriffs’ offices complied with the state’s Public Records Act by disclosing both jail dockets and arrest reports.

A survey of sheriffs’ departments in Mississippi reported by the Associated Press in late December showed that few comply with the state’s public records law and that many employees in those departments lack basic awareness of freedom of information laws.

Of 36 county sheriffs’ departments surveyed across Mississippi, only 17 complied with the state’s Public Records Act by disclosing upon request the county’s jail docket and an arrest report for the first individual on the docket.

Of the remaining counties, 14 provided only the jail docket and 5 refused to disclose either one.

“The people who met you at the door — the people you typically ask — were the least likely to know of the public records law,” said Lynn Evans, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information in Jackson, Miss. “Our assumption about the need for education being so important was validated by the results.”

The survey was conducted by the Associated Press with help from the Mississippi Press Association, the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, Common Cause and daily and weekly newspapers to see if the state’s sheriffs’ departments were complying with 1983 changes to the state’s open records laws making both jail dockets and arrest records public.

Volunteers, most of whom were not reporters, were sent to 40 of the state’s 82 counties to view the records. Surveyors deleted information about departments in 4 counties because of inconsistencies in how it was gathered.

The survey also showed that nearly half of the counties asked the volunteers to identify themselves. Four of the volunteers were told information they requested would only be disclosed to them if they were reporters or “authorized personnel.” Two were asked to show identification and three were required to sign in.

Some county officials told volunteers that the information they requested was not public record, either in part or in total.

Volunteers left written Freedom of Information requests in 12 counties. Two counties refused to accept them.

Only one of the 12 departments receiving submitted written requests provided the requested information. In 5 counties responses were incomplete. There was no response to the other 6 requests.

“We hope that mayors and the boards of aldermen would be embarrassed with their sheriffs and with what happens when someone goes about getting information in a perfectly legal way,” Evans said.


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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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