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The Missouri Sunshine Coalition put sheriff’s departments to the test by requesting public records; the group asked for a day’s worth of arrest and incident reports. As KSMU’s Missy Shelton reports, the group got a range of responses and in some cases, no response at all.
Click here for an Excel spreadsheet showing how sheriff's departments responded to the requests from the Missouri Sunshine Coalition.
Click here for more information on the Missouri Sunshine Coalition's project.
Click here for more information on the Missouri Sheriffs' Assocation.
When there’s a request for a public record, the Missouri Sunshine Law requires the governmental agency to respond within three business days. If the agency can’t provide the record within that time frame, it has to at least acknowledge receiving the request, give a detailed explanation for the delay and the earliest time the records will be available. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen.
Last September, the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, which is a group of journalists and citizens, sent letters to sheriff’s departments in all of the state’s 114 counties requesting arrest and incident reports for a single day. About three-quarters of the sheriff’s departments responded to the initial request. Eleven counties failed to respond to the initial request and a second request for the public records.
Jim Robertson is president of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition Board of Directors. He’s also the managing editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune.
“We need to make sure that public officials know what their responsibilities are under the state’s open meetings and records law. The Attorney General’s office has taken that responsibility to educate public officials on, which I think is appropriate. I think they need to step up their efforts.”
In an email to KSMU, Mick Covington, the executive director of the Missouri Sheriffs' Association said that his organization has brought in staff from the Attorney General’s office on multiple occasions to provide training to sheriffs on the Sunshine Law. Covington says last August, an instructor from the Attorney General’s office presented a training session on the Missouri Sunshine Law to attendees of the annual conference of the sheriffs' association. Sunshine Law handouts were also provided to attendees who requested them.
Steve Cox is the sheriff of Livingston County, Missouri and president of the Board of Directors for the Sheriff’s Association. He says this kind of gotcha project takes time and resources away from law enforcement.
“Why are we wasting sheriffs’ time around the state on this? Did they have an issue? Were they arrested by a deputy? What’s their beef? Was their cousin arrested by a deputy? Is that why we’re picking on sheriffs?”
One aspect of this project examined what fees, if any, sheriff’s departments would charge to provide the public records. The law allows governmental bodies to collect up to 10 cents per page and additional fees for research time involved in gathering the records. Twenty departments sent the documents for free while a couple of departments charged more than $350 for providing copies.
But Robertson says that’s not the finding that most concerns him.
“Most troublesome, I think, was there were a few departments that said, ‘Why do you want this record?’ And that’s not allowed in law. You’re entitled to that record if you’re a resident of Missouri for any reason at all. That’s not appropriate. We are entitled to public records for any reason as citizens. They’re our records.”
The President of the Missouri Sheriffs' Association Steve Cox says to make a fair assessment, the Sunshine Coalition ought to put other law enforcement agencies through the same kind of test.
“Why don’t they do this uniformly? If they want to compare us, why don’t they send the same stuff to the Highway Patrol Zones, the municipal police chiefs as well, so they can get a real feeling around the state on if the same issues are happening everywhere. And that’s my guess is that you’ll get the same percentage every place. I myself have even asked municipal agencies for something and can’t get it.”
Jim Robertson with the Missouri Sunshine Coalition says the goal is not to embarrass sheriff’s departments but to show how they respond to requests for public records. He says he’d like to see the Attorney General’s office use this data to ensure compliance with the Sunshine Law.
If you’d like to see how your county sheriff’s department responded to the request from the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, we have a link to the data on our website, KSMU.org