Does the public have a right to see police incident reports?

A city editor called me recently, wanting to know what records his local police department was required to make public.

Seems like a simple question, but in Tennessee, it has become anything but that.

The city editor’s staff was dealing with a new public information officer at the police department who was declining to turn over some incident reports because of their sensitive nature. The newspaper had a good relationship with the police chief and knew his track record was to be as transparent as possible about crime in the community.

The city editor hopes the matter is now resolved, with the police chief’s guidance that incident reports should not be withheld. But it exposes a common friction when it comes to crime reporting in Tennessee – what information does the public have a right to know about crime in their community, and what latitude do police have to withhold certain details?

The answers have consequences for all of the media’s ability to report independently on crime and law enforcement – and a citizen’s ability to find out about crime in their neighborhood.

Inquiries related to access to law enforcement records have steadily grown in three years for the Office of Open Records Counsel.

Open Records Counsel Elisha Hodge logged 288 inquiries on the topic from March 2013 to February 2014. That compares with 249 the year before, and 171 the year before that.

The questions span topics – fees, access to reports and time frame for response.

When Hodge gets a question from a law enforcement agency about whether they are required to release incident reports to the public, she shares Attorney General opinions from 1980 and 1981, and tells them case law in Tennessee doesn’t directly address the confidentiality of incident reports, also called offense reports.

The Oct. 2, 1980 Attorney General opinion says “such reports are not ‘public records’ which must be made available to the public.” It cites an exception created by Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 16(a)(2) that covers work product of law enforcement during an ongoing investigation or prosecution.

A followup Feb. 12, 1981 opinion said its earlier opinion “only applied to so-called ‘work product’; that is, documents created for internal use in the preparation of a prosecution or investigation.”

But because it didn’t specifically address offense reports, Hodge said the second opinion did not clear up the question.

“Do you have the right to access an offense report or incident report when there is a pending criminal action, which could include an investigation or prosecution? That’s the question. And in my opinion, that’s what’s not clear.”

Some police departments give out offense reports. Others don’t. There are some situations where offense reports should be redacted before being released to the public, Hodge said. For example, if a victim has a court order of protection, he or she can go to the law enforcement agency and ask them to not release identifying information.

Hodge also cited a 2002 case in Nashville where an appeals court found that identifying information of a juvenile victim of sexual assault should be redacted in fulfilling a public records request.

So where does that leave the public and local newsrooms?

When the waters are calm, everyone might row in the same direction.

But the fundamental issue remains. If the public reports a crime, and the police record that information – the basic who, what, when and where – in an offense report that starts the process of investigating, shouldn’t the who, what, when, where reported by the public be available to the public?

Shouldn’t the public know what crime is being reported in their community in a timely way – not after the case is over, sometimes years later? Don’t they have a right to unfiltered information that outlines the initial details and narrative reported to law enforcement?

If law enforcement gains ultimate discretion on all of the public records in its possession that might become information in an investigation or prosecution, the ability for a relevant and timely check on government power secured for citizens by the Tennessee Public Records Act becomes a charade.

Claiming the offense report is part of an investigation shuts the public out of basic information and unless noticed and challenged can contribute to a culture of unnecessary police secrecy.

Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonpartisan education and research organization dedicated to preserving and promoting open government. She answers questions for media and citizens regarding public records and open meetings. She can be reached at (615) 602-4080 or

Note: Rule 16(a)(2) is also used to shield other information in police files during an investigation or prosecution, and is at the center of a judge’s recent ruling in an open records lawsuit against Davidson County. The ruling is under appeal.

2 thoughts on “Does the public have a right to see police incident reports?

  1. Bradley A. Martin

    In my 30 years of reporting here, access has improved, though I rarely have been denied information. A recent death caused detectives to be reticent about circumstances, but they are awaiting an autopsy to shine light on the situation, and I was able to get enough answers to identify the victim and explain the uncertainty. Between the law enforcement logs and the court filings I do not believe I miss much — but there is also a long relationship as this community’s only regular reporter that overcomes the natural concern about media sensationalism. If I do miss something, somebody will give me enough of a tip that I can usually run it down.

    Offense reports are an important part of my work because they tell citizens where crime is taking place and what the police are up to. I have written scores of blotter stories about police making traffic stops for the mere reason that a taillight is out. I hope a few people see the lesson: fix your car and drive correctly and the copy will not have any reason to pull you over.

    Losing offense reports would leave me only with arrest affidavits, which aren’t available until an arrest is made. That’s not timely. While it’s important to publish names of arrestees, it’s equally important for the community to know types and locations of crime — for residents’ safety at the very least.
    I can’t see what the objection really is to making offense reports publicly available. Should taxpayers not know what they are paying for?

    • Mack Clapton (a private individual)

      You refer to “the public”

      “Don’t they have a right to unfiltered information that outlines the initial details and narrative reported to law enforcement?”

      Respectfully, but very sternly, No. There should absolutely be a filter.

      Although public awareness is important, this information is quite private in many cases.

      Incident/offense reports are not made by the public. PRIVATE individuals make reports.

      Reports involve intimate details of criminal activity that was clearly unwanted, and may be quite embarrassing, revealing, or even harmful to the individual if made public.

      One example: Theft of cash. The report will detail the exact location, time, and person that had a large sum of cash on his way to the bank.

      Another example just for entertainment:
      Theft of anti psychotic medications, firearms, 25 gallons of grain alcohol, and the contents of the poor bastards sex dungeon including the brand and surprisingly large quantity of lubricant.

      That breach of privacy is simply wrong, and additionally, depending on the good and proper behavior of individuals ( whether they are police or journalists ) to KEEP it private is also unacceptable.

      There should be a way to make this information available in an ANONYMOUS manner, but unless it is anonymous it should NOT be for public display.


What do you think?