Ark. high court says use-of-force reports are public record

Friday, February 17, 2012

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Reports from police officers that explain why they use force against someone are not exempt from the state’s public-records law, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The opinion from the state’s highest court came months after an attorney, Keith Hall, requested use-of-force reports in the case of an off-duty police officer who allegedly hit Hall’s client outside a Little Rock restaurant.

When Hall didn’t get the records he asked for, he filed a petition against Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas, claiming that Thomas violated the state Freedom of Information Act.

Thomas argued that the reports are exempt from the public-records law as employee-evaluation or job-performance records.

The matter made its way to a circuit court judge, who said the reports are not exempt.

Thomas appealed that judge’s decision, and the Supreme Court granted his request for a stay in the case.

In yesterday’s opinion written by Associate Justice Robert L. Brown, the Supreme Court sided with the lower court judge and said the use-of-force documents are public record.

“We liberally interpret the FOIA to accomplish its broad and laudable purpose that public business be performed in an open and public manner,” Brown wrote in Thomas v. Hall.

Chief Justice Jim Hannah agreed with the result of the opinion written by Brown, but offered his own analysis.

“Because the keeper of the requested records claiming the exemption failed to meet the burden of proof, I agree that the decision of the circuit court must be affirmed,” Hannah wrote.

Hall said he was pleased with the court’s decision.

“It was good for my client and good for transparency in government,” Hall said last night.

Lt. Terry Hastings, a Little Rock police spokesman, said the department has complied with the state Supreme Court’s opinion “and will be reviewing department policy as it may relate to the ruling in the future.”

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