Police blotter release mired in delay, fear of open government future

Sexual assaults won't be listed.

The release of the police blotter is mired in delay. Technical issues are partly to blame, but the underlying problem seems to be a fear in the Halifax Regional Police Department of a full release of data.

The police blotter is a daily log of all police calls, where officers were dispatched to, what sort of crime they were addressing and what happened. Police blotters are universally released by US police departments and are regular features in US newspapers, but not a single Canadian police department publishes its blotter. The Coast has long argued that there are no constitutional or privacy issues involved in releasing the blotter, and that there are large problems with *not* releasing it.

One example that highlighted the need for the blotter arose in the autumn of 2010. There had been a series of swarmings on or near the Halifax Common, but the police department had not publicized any of them. Only after nurses at the emergency room told the victim of the sixth swarming that he was the latest in a long line of such victims, and only after he brought the story to the press, did the public learn of the swarmings.

Had there been a public police blotter at the time, reporters would have noted the swarmings early on, and people may have taken alternate routes or otherwise protected themselves. Or, the police may have stepped up patrols in the area, perhaps preventing a recurrence. But because the public did not know about the swarmings, more people ended up seriously injured.

Beyond that example, police wield tremendous power in our society, and democratic oversight demands as much transparency in the police department as is possible.

After The Coast repeatedly raised the issue, last March the department announced it would make the police blotter public “in weeks.” That soon was modified to “by the end of the year” (2013), and then to “January,” next to February and now to “later this month” (March). A full year has passed since the initial announcement was made, but the blotter is indeed coming, deputy police chief Bill Moore assures us. Well, sort of.

Moore, who is overseeing the project, explains that he has no budget dedicated to the blotter, but is using existing IT staff when they’re not busy doing other work. “We thought it would be easier than it was,” he says.

So far, he’s established 30 crime types, and is testing that against the calls in the police databases. The blotter will be tied to the crime map that was made live last year, giving much more depth than the map’s current six categories. Moore expects to roll out a “beta” version soon, but it still won’t be a complete police blotter.

Two important aspects of the blotter will be missing in the beta version. First, sexual assault calls will not be named as such. Moore made that decision himself, after lengthy discussion with the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre. “I wouldn’t say they were objecting [to naming the assaults],
says Moore. “There was a range of concerns. I wouldn’t say that they had a corporate position.”

Police blotters don’t name exact addresses, but rather a block range—”the 200 block of Main Street,” for example. But even with that vagueness, some people feel that naming sexual assault calls somehow shames the victims of those assaults, or makes their lives more difficult in the aftermath. The counter argument is that sexual assault victims are no more shamed than the victims of any other crime, and by naming the crime what it is, the community has a better understanding of its pervasiveness, and can collectively take measures to better address it.

“I’ve taken a middle road,” says Moore. “We’re going to report all of them as part of the crime mapping, but rather than putting it on as this was a sexual assault at this particular pinpoint, we’re just going to label them as an assault.”

The second missing component will be the “final disposition”—the officer’s notes on what happened on the call. “The ‘someone stole a lawnmower’ piece won’t be there,” says Moore. Rather, the call will be noted as simply a reported theft, with no details. Moore says that the entire department needs to be brought in for training to learn how to write a report for public consumption, as opposed to the more detailed reports that are written for internal department purposes. For some reason this is a big problem for the Halifax PD, even though every single cop in the entire United States seems capable of it.

Moore won’t give a timeline for the training, but the public reporting will eventually make it into the blotter. For now, the beta version will have to suffice. “We want to get this out as soon as possible,” he says.

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