A state appeals court has ruled that Mayor Mike Bell’s administration must give The Blade a copy of the Police Department’s map of territories and boundaries of criminal gangs in Toledo. So what? It’s just a fight between the newspaper and a politician, right?
Wrong. If you live in Toledo, it’s your fight too. It’s a dispute about what city government thinks you deserve to know about matters that affect your safety and your family’s. More broadly, it’s about the administration’s excessively — and habitually — narrow definition of public information, which extends to issues beyond law enforcement.
Nearly a year to the day after The Blade sued the city to get the gang map, a panel of the Sixth District Court of Appeals in Toledo agreed with the newspaper that the map is a public document covered by Ohio’s open-records law. Regrettably, the city plans to appeal the ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court.
City and police officials assert that the map is exempt from disclosure because it is a “confidential law enforcement investigatory record.” It is based on intelligence from police informants, surveillance work, and the department’s crime data. Release of the map, officials argue, would reveal investigative techniques, undermine active investigations, and let gang members know where police are watching them.
But Judge Mark Pietrykowski, writing for the appeals court’s 2-1 majority, noted that the officer who compiled the map testified “there is nothing on the map that would reveal a particular investigative technique” or “any source of information” or “any location that the Toledo Police Department is surveilling.” The judge, joined by Judge Thomas Osowik, added that the map “was not created in connection with any particular case.”
In his dissent, Judge Stephen Yarbrough said the court “should not … be substituting our sense of what the map reveals, or doesn’t reveal, or its usefulness, for that of a trained police investigator.” But as the majority made clear, public records law does not permit, much less require, such blind deference to the city’s assertions, especially when its own witnesses don’t support them.
If the dissent were to prevail, it would effectively repeal public records law, restricting public access to police records only to those that police want to release. We expect judges to be more vigilant than that, and are pleased that the judges in the majority did their job.
Toledoans surely have as great a right to know the neighborhoods — theirs and others — in which gangs are most active as city officials, police officers, and gang members do. That information will help citizens determine the extent and location of the city’s gang problem.
As taxpayers and voters, Toledoans then can assess how well city and police officials are deploying and using public resources to combat gang operations. These data can form the basis of a valuable debate about public safety during this year’s city election campaign. And as the court ruled, they need not force the disclosure of police investigative techniques.
The Blade considers this issue so important that it created its own gang map, based on information supplied by current and former gang members, and published it in a special report this spring. But this informal document does not provide a justification for the city’s continued suppression of an official record.
When he ran for mayor four years ago, Mr. Bell pledged to conduct a transparent administration. Yet on such issues as foreign investment in the city and his own official travels, as well as the gang map, he has displayed a distressing penchant for secrecy.
Mayor Bell recently suggested that in a second term, he would seek to be a better communicator. As he campaigns for re-election, he should demonstrate that commitment to public openness by complying with the court order and releasing the gang map without further challenge or delay.