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EDITORIAL: What's happening? Information lacking from police dept.

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opinion New Richmond, 54017
New Richmond Wisconsin 127 South Knowles Avenue 54017

Two weeks ago, a reader inquired at the New Richmond News office why we'd not reported anything on break-ins at several downtown businesses.

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Upon checking with the New Richmond police, we were advised via an e-mailed response from a supervisor Tuesday, May 21, that "those cases are currently under investigation and I cannot release information to you until they are cleared or closed..."

So in the event the burglaries aren't solved, the community has no right to know they've even occurred?

While we'd never have described NRPD as being "pro-active" with its public information practices, department relations with the newspaper have certainly chilled since the News filed suit against the City of New Richmond last February in an effort to reopen access to the most basic information involving the most basic department activity.

The department says it began restricting access to information on the belief that it could find itself in violation of the Driver's Privacy Protection Act and open themselves to a lawsuit from someone who believes their personal information was improperly released.

Since February, a number of other departments across the state have adopted a similar position. All are apparently waiting for a court to clarify the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision that prompted their conservative response.

Clearly, releasing basic information about burglaries has nothing to do with DPPA. We're not asking for the names and driver's license numbers of suspects and its unclear how public release of the who-what-where-when of a burglary could jeopardize an investigation.

Lest they have any doubts, NRPD need only look to a 2008 Wisconsin Court of Appeals finding involving a similar dispute between the Portage Daily Register and the Columbia County Sheriff's Department involving a much more delicate investigation involving a nasty political campaign.

The court found no justifiable reason for the law enforcement agency's actions.

"Exceptions to access to public records are to be narrowly construed; unless the exception is explicit and unequivocal, courts will not hold it to be an exception," read one of the cases cited by the court.

"Sheriff's department's statement that a matter had been referred to the District Attorney's office and was related to an ongoing investigation was not a sufficiently public policy reason for denial of request for the investigative report under the open records law ..." came another.

We won't belabor the point but, suffice to say, it looks like the NRPD is playing sour grapes because it's being sued by the newspaper.

Meanwhile, it's the taxpayers and good people of New Richmond who aren't allowed to know what's happening in their city. And in reality, we believe, the police are shooting themselves in the foot in their attempt to solve the crime. If the public is aware of all that has occurred in the city, there may be someone out there who witnessed something that could help, if only they knew the police were looking for information.

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