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Blotter access 

Here’s one way Canada can improve its rotten freedom of information record: make the police blotter public.

A new study ranks Canada dead last in an international comparison of freedom-of-information laws," reported the Canadian Press last week.

The news came as no surprise whatsoever. Last year I participated in a forum attended by a dozen other journalists, academics and activists working on Freedom of Information issues who were all appalled at the the state of Canada's laws---one researcher said that even developing countries like Pakistan and India have more open governments than Canada.

But why should you care? Let me pick just one example of a record, to demonstrate how having more open governments can make a huge difference for the public.

In the US, reporters regularly review what's called the "police blotter." In every city and town in the entire country, from big cities like New York and San Francisco to tiny podunk places with one traffic light, every time a police officer is dispatched on a call, the subsequent report is entered into a log---the blotter---which is then made available to the public, including reporters. There can be hundreds entries each day in the blotter, and reporting of the blotter can become an art form of sorts---see, for example, my favourite, the Arcata, California Eye's, via thecoast.ca/ArcataEye.

The officers' reports are abridged in the blotter and the names of crime victims withheld, but there's enough information provided to get an understanding of what happened. A typical blotter entry might read: "10:52pm. A resident in the 500 block of Main Street reported a man trying to pry open a window in the rear of Wilson's grocery store. Officer Smith arrived on the scene at 10:56pm and observed a 32-year-old man walking behind the store. The man was questioned, and advised to move on. Officer Smith called Mr. Wilson to secure the building." Mundane stuff, most of it, but from these reports good reporters can notice trends and build interesting stories. More important, the public knows what kind of crime is happening.

Imagine my surprise when I started working in Halifax and discovered there's no such thing as a police blotter. Here, the PR wing of the police department puts out a daily release with what it thinks the public should know. Halifax PD reported one call last Sunday; three each on Saturday and Friday. "It was a steady day with calls for service but nothing significant to report," read Wednesday's report.

Here's why this matters to you. Last fall, over a period of four days, there were five separate swarming incidents on or near the Halifax Common. None of them were reported in the daily releases from Halifax PD. So far as the public was aware, there was no increased risk from walking in the area. Then there was a particularly brutal sixth swarming; the victim went to hospital and was told by nurses that they had treated several other swarming victims in recent days, information the victim then gave to the press. Only then did the police department acknowledge the previous swarmings, and only then did the public become aware of the increased danger and demand stepped-up police response.

We don't know why the police kept the earlier swarmings from the public, but we can speculate that police brass were trying to spin crime stats in their favour or not bring undue attention to their lack of effectiveness, exactly the sort of government interference with information that public records laws are designed to prevent.

Whatever the reason the police withheld information about the swarmings, doing so endangered the public. It's possible some of the victims would not have been walking in the area, had they known of the risk.

This situation would not have happened in the US. Because the police blotter is regularly reviewed by reporters, a similar rash of swarmings would have been public knowledge as they were occurring, and the informed public could respond accordingly.

Freedom of Information laws and issues of public access are complicated. But here's one particular instance where the public can demand change and the government can respond: Make the police blotter public.

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