Officials with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation refuse to release records every other law enforcement agency in the state is required to make public, claiming a state law exempts them from openness requirements.
The agency’s position isn’t sitting well with open government advocates, who said failing to release basic information about incidents and arrests is a fundamental breach of public trust.
OSBI general counsel Jimmy Bunn has refused to release records related to the arrest of Jonathan Weaver, 15, who is charged with stabbing Nick Tilley, 16, Nov. 9 outside a Seminole High School football game.
Bunn has not said what specific records agents fill out when they make arrests and has not responded to a request by The Oklahoman for blank forms agents fill out or records related to previous arrests made by OSBI agents.
Seminole police turned the inquiry into Tilley’s stabbing over to the OSBI.
A judge has sealed an arrest affidavit in the case because it contains the names of witnesses who have been threatened. Although the judge’s decision applies only to the arrest affidavit, Bunn has refused to release other records related to Weaver’s arrest even though they are public under the state’s Open Records Act.
The law requires law enforcement agencies to release records containing details such as an arrested person’s description and facts concerning an arrest including the cause of an arrest.
Lindel Hutson, president of Freedom of Information Oklahoma Inc., which advocates for open government, said providing such basic information separates U.S. law enforcement agencies from secret police forces in authoritarian regimes.
“A police agency that wants to hide behind some cloak of secrecy is a cause for concern for every citizen,” Hutson said. “It’s fundamental because people have to be able to trust law enforcement. If you create the type of roadblocks they try to throw up at times, you just foster mistrust.”
Bunn cited a state law that keeps confidential the OSBI’s investigatory records including the results of laboratory records provided to other law enforcement agencies.
“The OSBI strives to strike a proper balance between a statute that could easily and likely successfully be argued prohibits the dissemination of any information from the OSBI regarding its investigations and the spirit of open and transparent government expressed by the Open Records Act,” Bunn said.
Bunn said the agency’s media policy allows a public information officer to send news releases containing basic information about arrests. However, the policy does not mention what records the agency should release under state law.
State Sen. David Holt, an attorney, said he disagrees with Bunn’s interpretation of the law and is willing to get a definitive answer on the matter.
“I think it is the case that the more recent Open Records Act trumps the older statute, but if OSBI feels it is debatable, I am willing to help facilitate an opinion from the attorney general so that all parties may have clarity,” said Holt, R-Oklahoma City.
Regardless of the legal question, Holt said, the records need to be public.
“From a policy standpoint, arrest records in a free society need to be disclosed,” he said.
Hutson said the OSBI has a reputation among journalists throughout the state for being secretive and releasing less information than other law enforcement agencies.
“My question is, ‘Why is there a need to be this way?’” Hutson said. “All of these agencies ought to be out front and up front about these records.”