Arizona Republic Disses Cops for Releasing Public Records

Reporters use public records to keep the public informed about the community around them, so naturally many journalists in town -- us included -- were dismayed when Phoenix police decided to blow a hole in the state's public records law.

Not some of the hacks at the Arizona Republic, apparently: A prominent article over the weekend shows the state's biggest paper is less worried about enlightening readers than making sure prospective identity thieves can't find a crime suspect's Social Security Number in a police report. The article -- which, astonishingly, took four reporters to scratch out -- also chugalugs the city's Kool-Aid on the supposed benefits of an anti-identity-theft law being used to blast apart Arizona's public records statute. As the article's lead writer, Michael Ferraresi, states:

Other reports showed how a new records policy unveiled last week could limit the potential for identity theft by erasing precise addresses, telephone numbers and other information from the written public record.

No evidence in the article is offered to back up the half-baked assertion that erasing addresses or telephone numbers can prevent identity theft. Though certain specific information like a bank account number could conceivably lead to identity theft, the idea that a meth head is going to spend time looking for ID theft "leads" by reviewing random police reports at the police station is laughable. In launching its Draconian new records policy last week, the city of Phoenix didn't offer one example of an unredacted police report leading to a case of identity theft -- probably because there isn't one.

Ferrarari goes on to write:

So far, Phoenix records clerks are inconsistently whiting or blacking out details from booking slips at police headquarters at 620 W. Washington St.

Home addresses, relatives' names and phone numbers are redacted in some documents, left visible in others. In some cases, birth dates are completely redacted. In others, just the date and month are redacted.

On Thursday, hours after Phoenix police arrested three Missouri men at a Super 8 motel near Interstate 17 and Northern Avenue in connection with a cocaine deal, a property description on one of the suspect's booking slips revealed three uncensored credit-card numbers - in addition to a full Social Security number.

Police redacted the name and phone number of one of the men's grandmothers, listed on the booking form, but inaccurately reported another suspect's name in a daily operations report.

Note how Ferraresi seems to scold police for their sloppy redacting -- even though such sloppiness often benefits journalists and the public. Also, precise redacting of thousands of pages of reports takes an enormous amount of time from our public servants -- it wastes taxpayer money in the name of hiding information possessed by the government.

The Republic has waged many battles with government officials in the past to obtain public records. With this article, the Republic appears to raising the white flag and surrending to those who would thwart the public's right to know.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.