Lawmaker: Bill protecting cops, judges goes too far

A Mandeville lawmaker says he simply wanted to protect prosecutors, judges and police officers from violent retaliation when he offered a bill last month that would restrict public access to information about them.

But Rep. Tim Burns said last week that he now recognizes that his bill, House Bill 430, might go far beyond that — a view echoing the alarms sounded by critics who fear it would, for instance, shield police disciplinary records from public view.

“I’m admitting the bill needs amending,” said Burns, the Republican chairman of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, where the bill has been referred. “I need to see where everything’s going, so it’s not festering and there’s not undue concern over it.”

As his bill is now written, “employment-related information” on police officers, sheriff’s deputies, judges, prosecutors and their staffs would be immune from disclosure under the state’s public records law.

The three-page bill would revise the law to say those criminal justice agencies “may exclude from disclosure any employment-related information that will identify a particular employee.” They still may disclose “nonidentifying information of a general nature or aggregated data that does not identify a particular employee.”

The public could see data on the salaries or work schedules of judges or police officers, for instance, but it might not learn who is making what under Burns’ legislation.

Critics argue that the bill, which Burns unfurled last month on behalf of the Louisiana District Attorney Association, is appallingly broad.

“Let’s say a police officer is accused of five beatings and is on desk duty. Certainly, people have a right to that information. Of all the people who are government employees across the state in all different branches, we’re going to give this blanket exemption to law enforcement? It’s really weird,” said Emily Maw, director of Innocence Project New Orleans.

“There’s something inherently public about going out and fighting crime or working for a judge,” Maw said. “Your status as a government employee is something the people who are paying you should know: your performance, the length of time, how many complaints. Those sorts of things are absolutely legitimate for public records.”

If law enforcement officials and judges or their staffs don’t want their work life to be public, they should find other jobs, Maw suggested.

Some area district attorneys, including East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III and 21st Judicial District Attorney Scott Perrilloux (Livingston, St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes), already refuse to provide information such as names of specific employees, arguing that its release could imperil them.

Burns said the bill was drafted in response to the killing last year of a Texas district attorney and his wife, just one of several seemingly targeted strikes on public safety leaders nationwide. The chief of Colorado’s prison system also was murdered, execution-style, when he opened his front door a year ago.

Closer to home, a 22-year-old Baker man pleaded guilty last year to making threats against Moore and others during the 2012 murder trial of rapper Torence “Lil’ Boosie” Hatch.

Critics note that state law already protects the home addresses, telephone numbers, Social Security numbers and medical records of public employees.

They call the bill another brazen attempt to save law enforcement officials from embarrassment for alleged mischief — one among a series of bills that have cropped up, mostly from police officer groups, in the wake of a 2008 state appeals court ruling.

The ruling in that case, which involved The Advocate, forced the release of internal-affairs files from the Baton Rouge Police Department. In overturning a lower court, the appeals court prefaced its ruling by finding “the police officers under investigation had no individual privacy interest in these files and recognizing a strong public interest in disclosure.”

Burns said he’s heard concern from New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office that the proposed bill would affect access to disciplinary proceedings. The Louisiana Press Association also opposes the bill. Quatrevaux’s office declined to discuss it.

“That’s certainly not its intent,” Burns said of a blanket protection that would bar access to disciplinary files. “What we’re trying to do is protect the identity of certain court and law enforcement personnel from being made public.”

He said he would discuss the issue with the District Attorney Association so the bill “doesn’t give them any more protections than is necessary.”

Neither Burns nor E. Pete Adams, executive director of the prosecutors’ group, would elaborate on what specific measures a revised bill might include. Adams said the group is willing to work with critics on the wording.

“It probably needs some work,” Adams conceded. “It’s aimed at not making it so doggone easy for somebody to find out where people live and who they are. It’s a safety measure.”