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Judge: Village police can't keep man from looking through reports

ELLSWORTH — The village of Elmwood’s police department can’t bar a citizen’s request to inspect reports, a judge ruled last week in Pierce County.

James Duvall, a Buffalo-Pepin County judge presiding over the civil case between the village and a town of Rock Elm man, said Nov. 22 that Elmwood must abide state law governing open records.

“He’s got the right to access those records,” Duvall said, later adding that the ruling applies to every single police report, incident report, traffic report and more. “He gets ‘em.”

The judge was speaking about Rick Talford, the man who sued the village in March after his request to review two months’ worth of traffic and incident reports was denied by the department’s chief and lone officer, Michael Schaffer.

Village attorney Robert Loberg and Shaffer declined to comment on the ruling after the hearing. Talford, however, didn’t hesitate in praising the decision.

“Thankfully, the judge used common sense and the law,” he said after the hearing, “and I appreciate that.”

Talford said he’s not after every record in the station — just reports about traffic activity on Highway 72, which passes through downtown Elmwood.

“I have catching up to do,” he said, clutching his own copy of the state’s public-records compliance laws.

Speeding on the highway presents “very serious concerns in the community,” Talford said, and he wants to see if records show if there’s anything being done to curb it. He said skid marks from drivers apparently peeling out in front of the police station raise questions.

“What is the officer doing?” Talford said.

‘Public records belong to the public’

In summarizing the issue during last week’s hearing, Duvall said Schaffer’s response to Talford’s request was that he would not “open my file cabinets for you” to inspect police reports. Those reports, the department argued, contain confidential information that should be protected.

Talford could request specific reports if he wanted, but would not be given carte blanche access, Duvall recited.

As the case progressed through civil court, village attorney Robert Loberg offered to let Talford review the department’s daily incident log. Talford said in court last week that the offer represented “a starting point” toward an agreement.

Duvall said that didn’t go far enough.

“People have the right to have the government open up their file cabinet,” he said, later adding, “I want to be clear as a bell here: He doesn’t have to be satisfied with looking the daily logs.”

Duvall called Talford’s data request — which had been narrowed in its scope during months of court proceedings — “pretty modest.” And while the judge said he understands how police can be hesitant to let the public to “go cruising through their files,” those notions don’t override the law.

“Public records belong to the public,” the judge said. “The public has that right.”

For the complete story, see the Dec. 1 print issue of the River Falls Journal.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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