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Newspaper sues Wis. police for denying access to records

The Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. A newspaper is accusing the Madison Police Department of violating the state’s open records law by refusing to release disciplinary records involving a former officer who resigned.

The Wisconsin State Journal and investigative reporter Dee Hall filed a lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court against the department Wednesday.

The newspaper, the second largest in Wisconsin, is seeking access to employment and disciplinary records involving former officer Meredyth Thompson.

The department, in response to an open records request filed by Hall, refused to release copies of complaints filed against Thompson by citizens and her colleagues on the force in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

Facing termination for unspecified misconduct, Thompson resigned from the force.

The department also declined to release disciplinary recommendations and opinions of her supervisors or any information regarding “sensitive law enforcement investigative techniques.”

In an April 3 letter partially denying Hall’s request, Lt. Victor Wahl acknowledged the public needs to know about police misconduct and how it is handled but said nonetheless that disclosing those records would not serve the public interest.

He said releasing the complaints and her supervisors’ recommendations could harm individuals’ reputations and privacy and undermine the department’s ability to maintain a system of internal discipline.

“Also, employees in similar circumstances in the future might be hesitant to resign - avoiding the public expense of a hearing before the Police & Fire Commission - if their names are made public,” he wrote.

Media lawyer Bob Dreps, representing the newspaper, argued in the lawsuit that none of those reasons are valid exceptions to the open records law.

“The Police Department failed to offer any statutory exemption, recognized limitation on disclosure under common law, or public policy in keeping the records confidential sufficient to override the presumption of public access,” he wrote.

In a statement, newspaper editor Ellen Foley said public access to records involving police and law enforcement officers is increasingly important.

“The Wisconsin State Journal will fight to keep our government records open for all citizens and to enable our journalism to fuel the solution-focused conversations that make Madison and Wisconsin so strong,” she said.