PENDLETON - Access to police records is meant to protect not only law enforcement officials, but also the public from incarceration without public oversight.
Interestingly, even in the small Eastern Oregon towns of Hermiston, Milton-Freewater and Pendleton, access to those public documents varied.
East Oregonian auditors Cyndie Driscoll and Milena Gaylord struggled in their attempts to get copies of reports or other information on the last five drunken driving arrests in Hermiston and Pendleton, respectively. But Roger Harnack successfully was granted the arrest information.
In Pendleton, Gaylord was told by police assistant Diana Anderson that she couldn't release the information, and referred the auditor to the city attorney's office. There, Louise M. Allman, a paralegal, said the documents weren't public because they have not been adjudicated.
"These ladies were courteous, but they were not willing to help me," Gaylord wrote in her audit report.
Gaylord further said that she was told she could look in the newspaper if she truly needed the information.
However, under Oregon state statutes, police reports accessible to newspaper reporters and editors are also legally accessible to the general public.
But Police Chief Stuart Roberts said the cumbersome process experienced by Gaylord was probably a misunderstanding.
According to Roberts, police records staff were unavailable when Gaylord requested the documents Jan. 19. And when Anderson attempted to assist Gaylord, the assistant understood Gaylord to be requesting officers' actual arrest records.
"It was our understanding she wanted the actual physical reports," he said, noting the department doesn't "have any problem with releasing the information."
"In fact, I think the public should be aware of what's going on in the community," he said
Roberts said any resident wanting to review arrest information can come to the office, preferably during 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and request to review the "briefing log."
The log contains generic arrest information such as name, date location and a short narrative, he said.
In Hermiston, Driscoll was asked her name and police officials questioned her on why she wanted to see the documents.
"The dispatcher (who greeted Driscoll) wouldn't even give me her name," she said, noting that the dispatcher was defensive. "She really didn't want to help and acted like it really wasn't any of my business."
Hermiston Police Chief Dan Coulombe was out of town when the survey was taken but said Friday he planned to review how his department responded.
Neither Gaylord nor Harnack were asked for their names or the reasons for requesting the drunken-driving reports.
But unlike Gaylord and Driscoll, Harnack was granted access to the records he sought from police in Milton-Freewater.
"The dispatchers were both friendly and acted nearly immediately to fulfill my request," Harnack, the managing editor of the East Oregonian, said. "They even went so far as to type the reports out for me while I waited."
The documents had to be typed separately so they could be viewed outside of the general police dispatch log.
Milton-Freewater Police Chief Mike Gallaher said he was happy with his staff's performance.
"We do have an ongoing concern 24 hours a day with confidentiality, but at the same time we weigh that with the public's right to know," he said.
Gallaher chalked up his staff's immediate response to the request as a matter of practicality.
"I'm not surprised. It's not unusual for us to get public records requests," he said. "It's a pleasant piece of information to hear they are complying with public records laws as you understand them, and I understand them."