Mississippi bill would increase access to police records

MISSISSIPPI — A bill that would allow easier access to policeincident reports is awaiting a state Senate vote and is expected to pass thissession.

The bill, HB 474, would update Mississippi’s Public Records Act byallowing the public to make open records requests for police incident reports,which previously have not been specified as public records under Mississippilaw.

According to Ken Winters, Executive Director of the Mississippi Chiefs ofPolice Association, the bill would also apply to college and university policedepartments that exercise state law enforcement power.

The state House passed the bill Feb. 27. The Senate Judiciary Committeefavorably reported the measure on March 12.

The bill also clarifies the law’s exceptions. Reports andinformation regarding ongoing investigations will be exempt from public access,in addition to any information about crime victims.

The bill also says incident reports must include “the name andidentification of each person charged with and arrested for the alleged offense,the time, the date and location of the alleged offense, and the propertyinvolved, to the extent this information is known.”

The bill’s main sponsor was Democratic state Del. John Mayo. Mayosaid he was asked by the Mississippi Press Association to sponsor thelegislation. He said he believes that government should be open to the publicas much as possible.

A number of groups have lobbied for several years to update thelegislation, Mississippi Press Association executive director Layne Brucesaid.

Bruce said that the amendments to the bill have been the result ofcompromises between the Mississippi Press Association and law enforcement tradegroups such as the Mississippi Sheriffs Association and Mississippi Associationof Chiefs of Police.

Bruce said the major changes to the bill centered on deciding the number ofdays that a police department had to respond to a request and the amount of thepenalties for those who violate the state’s open records laws.

In its current version, the bill allows up to 14 working days to reproducea record or reject a request. The original version of the bill included apenalty of $25 for officials who “knowingly and willingly” denyaccess to records that should be public, but the version passed by the House nolonger includes this provision. Under current Mississippi law the fine is setat not more than $100 for each improper denial of a public record.

“We are very happy with what we consider to be significantprogress,” Bruce said. “It is a small piece of the puzzle, but welook forward to working with the law enforcement trade groups.”

Winter said that most law enforcement agencies were concerned over howreleasing information could affect their ability to apprehend suspects.

“Honestly, we would have liked [the law] to just stay the way it is,but if changes need to be made we are comfortable with this thing,” Wintersaid.

When asked to comment on if police agencies would have any difficultyfulfilling open records requests if this new law was passed, Winter said

“98% of law enforcement agencies already do this, I don’t think theywill have any problem at all.”

The bill has been placed on the Senate calendar and must be voted on by thefull chamber by March 26. If passed, it would be sent to Gov. Haley Barbour tobe signed into law.

Bruce and Mayo said they expect the bill to pass the Senate floorvote.