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"We just want the facts, chief"

"If you've ever played that popular party game - the one where someone whispers a secret in someone else's ear, who passes it along to another person, who passes it to another, until the original message is reduced to gibberish - you'll have some appreciation of what the Independent is being asked to tolerate from the Port Orchard Police.The difference is, this isn't a game. It has to do with public servants - elected and otherwise - apparently flouting Washington state law, hindering our ability to accurately report on crime and police matters.Our problem - and, by extension, the public's problem - began last winter when, for reasons of its own, the Port Orchard Police Department discontinued its longstanding policy of allowing representatives of the media to inspect original police incident reports. These are the documents filled out by officers in the field describing in detail every call they respond to. It is from these reports that reporters gather the raw data from which they write stories about crime and police activity.By law, these reports are a matter of public record, and most law enforcement agencies provide it routinely to the media. Washington state's Public Disclosure Act (RCW 42.15.250) makes it abundantly clear all records prepared by public agencies are subject to inspection on demand by any person.Naturally, there are exceptions. According to a website maintained by Washington's Attorney General (http://www.wa.gov/ago/consumer/public.html#available), one of those exceptions is designed to protect the investigative functions of law enforcement and other agencies with investigative responsibilities, as well as the legitimate business interests of other citizens.We respect the police department's need to protect confidentiality in many cases. However, the same website goes on to note that, Just because part of a record may be exempt does not mean the entire record can be withheld. In those cases, the agency has the obligation to black out or otherwise remove the information it believes is exempt from disclosure and provide you the rest.Which brings us to the Port Orchard Police Department and the party game it insists on playing. Since Alan Townsend was appointed chief of police in January, the department's policy has been to withhold the original reports, instead offering the media only vague incident summaries.If a reporter sees a summary that seems newsworthy, he or she is required to either ask the chief or an on-duty sergeant - if they are available - to pull the actual incident report from the files and read it aloud to them. Or he or she may make a written request for a copy of the report. The city then exercises its right to charge the reporter for copies, as well as the labor costs of the clerk making the copies - at $17 per hour.Apparently not wanting to seem completely unreasonable, the police department has been issuing press releases when incidents occur that Townsend deems newsworthy. The Independent received such a release last week regarding a domestic violence episode that escalated into a high-speed chase through the streets of Port Orchard.The original release - from the desk of Chief Townsend - was sufficiently vague that our reporter called Townsend for clarification. He passed her off to a sergeant, who tried to sift through the accounts of at least a half dozen officers on the scene to patch together a coherent version of the events that night.Not surprisingly, his version differed in several significant respects from Townsend's, which differed from that of an eyewitness we subsequently interviewed.Bottom line: It's not the job of the chief of police or any other public official to decide what crime stories are suitable for publication. It's ours. And since our names are going on the stories we write, we're going to insist that we, and not a police representative, be the ones to read through all the accounts to decide which version we believe is credible.What that means is that the Port Orchard Police Departement is going to have to start following the law again by letting us see the original reports. They may take the time to black out any sensitive material they wish, but the rest is fair game.Our job is to report fairly and accurately the news of Port Orchard - not the gibberish the Port Orchard Police Department would like you to hear. "

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