Trying to access the Cherokee County sheriff’s booking records years ago suddenly became a problem for the newspaper. Reporters couldn’t do their jobs, and the public didn’t know who the sheriff was putting in jail. I didn’t understand why he was refusing to release the information. The newspaper had had no problems in the past, and the records fell under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
As a last resort, the newspaper sued the sheriff to gain access. At the time, he kept his booking information ” who had been arrested and for what ” on individual cards. He astonished the court when he explained why he wouldn’t let anyone see the records. He had been writing the names of confidential informants on the backs of the cards.
Good grief! I wouldn’t have let anyone see the names either, but then I wouldn’t have put them on the backs of public documents.
I thought of that sheriff when I read a story in The Norman Transcript recently about federal and state officials arresting 44 people on drug charges. The feds arrested and charged 24 of them, and the state arrested the other 20. Nearly a week after the state arrests, officials still hadn’t released their names.
“Ten individuals were believed to have been booked into the McClain County Jail,” The Transcript reporter wrote, “and seven in the Cleveland County Detention Center, The Transcript has learned. It was unclear the whereabouts of the other three.”
(Write this down: If I’m ever arrested, put my name in the newspaper. Please! I want someone besides the police to know where I am.)
In addition to the community having the right to know who has been arrested, open records laws also protect the rights of those people taken into custody. Their guilt or innocence will be decided in due course, but citizens at least have the right to know who’s locked up in their jail.
The Cleveland County district attorney told The Transcript he couldn’t release the names of the people arrested because some may not be charged in district court. “I will be putting lives in danger,” he said.
Nobody wants lives put in danger, nobody wants criminals coddled and, indeed, law enforcement officials should protect confidential informants. I realize that the Cherokee County sheriff all those years ago may have wanted to keep his arrests secret forever and that the Cleveland County district attorney planned to eventually make his drug arrests public once charges were filed. But failing to promptly tell the public who police are arresting and putting in jail seems to fly in the face of our country’s ideals.
“Secret detentions have no place in a democracy,” the U.S. program director of Human Rights Watch said in 2003. Jamie Fellner was commenting in a Human Rights Watch article on a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit giving the government the right to secretly detain hundreds of people after Sept. 11.
Sept. 11 was a different situation than these drug busts, granted, but the point is the same: secret arrests.
We all need to take the confidential names off the backs of our cards and find a better way to protect informants while complying with the spirit of openness in government.
Willis is a former Muskogee Phoenix managing editor and faculty adviser for the Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma.