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Local editorial

Keeping public records public

This newspaper's lawsuit is about more than what happened Feb. 11

The e-mail and phone calls came in as expected Friday morning: Why are you trying to blame this on the police? a caller asked. I don't know why you won't leave this thing alone, another reader said in an e-mail.

There also were supporting calls: We need to know what happened, said one. Good for you. Get the truth, another caller said.

The comments came after it was announced that the Mail Tribune had gone to court to try to force the release of information related to a Feb. 11 fatal vehicle crash in Medford.

We understand the anger and we appreciate the support. But we also hope people recognize there is more to this issue than just getting to the bottom of a wreck.

On Thursday, this paper filed suit in Jackson County Circuit Court, seeking release of the tapes or transcripts of police radio conversations from that night. The public records are in the possession of Southern Oregon Regional Communications, a regional 9-1-1 and dispatch center, but have been withheld from the public at the request of prosecutors.

The basic details surrounding the fatal crash are well known. An intoxicated teenager tried to escape police by driving on Riverside Avenue at speeds of up to 100 mph through downtown Medford. When he ran a red light at Jackson Street, he struck another vehicle, killing himself and the father of three young children and seriously injuring two others.

— Questions have been raised about whether the police pursuit was appropriate and safe. A sheriff's department captain who was driving one of the two pursuing police cars has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. Those questions have angered some, who say the blame is being unfairly shifted from the teenager to the officers.

We have said before and will say it again: While the blame for the crash clearly lies with the teenager, there are secondary, but legitimate questions about the officers' actions.

The step the Mail Tribune took by going to court was about more than trying to determine what took place that night. Equally important to us is the need to ensure that public records are indeed kept public and not squirreled away at the whim of some official.

Dispatch tapes and transcripts are unquestionably public records. But Josephine County District Attorney Stephen Campbell has told SORC not to release the information because it's under investigation. Campbell is heading up the review of the incident because of the potential conflict of interest for Jackson County's DA.

While prosecutors may close off materials that are part of an ongoing investigation, the Mail Tribune maintains that the public interest outweighs that claim to an exemption from the public records laws. This is clearly an important issue, one that involves the second-ranking officer in the sheriff's office and a public policy issue ' police pursuits ' that has been widely debated in recent years. Beyond that, the tapes are hardly confidential records, since anyone with a police scanner could have listened in on the conversations.

Oregon has a strong public records law, first enacted in 1973, intended to ensure that the public's business is done in public. It protects us all by ensuring that everything from arrest records to city council minutes are available for review.

Nationally, too many public records are being hidden from view, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes to cover up questionable activities. There are increasing efforts at the state and local levels, as well, to make public information off-limits.

Our belief is that the best government is a government that operates openly. Any attempt to close off public information diminishes that government and chips away at the rights of its citizens to fully understand what government is doing for them, or to them.