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Dart Award Honorable Mention

What Rape?

City Police Delayed Releasing Key Records Sought by Paper

St. Louis police resisted releasing many records the Post-Dispatch reviewed during the newspaper's investigation, delaying for weeks or months before turning them over.

St. Louis police resisted releasing many records the Post-Dispatch reviewed during the newspaper's investigation, delaying for weeks or months before turning them over.

The department complained that the newspaper was abusing freedom-of-information laws. Key records the newspaper asked to see in February were turned over in mid-July.

At one point, the department claimed that producing six reports of rapes for the newspaper cost $700 in salaries because police legal staffers had to make phone calls to courthouse workers about whether elements of the complaints could be considered public records.

A crime report is the most basic public record, Post-Dispatch Editor Ellen Soeteber said.

"The public gives great power to its police, and it is imperative that people be able to assess how the police wield this power, " she said. "How can police be accountable to the public if they try to conceal basic crime records?"

The newspaper first requested records on Dec. 15, when it asked for copies of informal memos that had been written in lieu of official reports of crimes, including rapes, from June 2003 through May of last year.

The department copied about 500 memos but gave them first to a panel appointed by Police Chief Joe Mokwa to examine the department's crime reporting. He appointed the panel after the Post-Dispatch began reporting about issues involving crime statistics.

The newspaper finally got copies of the memos on Jan. 28, after threatening a suit.

After Mokwa confirmed that sex crime investigators had written memos for at least two decades, the newspaper sought to examine the memos that had been written through the years and asked the department to also provide any log or registry of memos.

On Feb. 28, Police Department lawyer Jane Berman Shaw said the memos had been destroyed periodically, usually every year.

But she confirmed the department had kept a catalog of 4,300 index cards that corresponded to memos written since the 1970s.

The newspaper repeated its request for the remaining memos and the index cards in a letter to the department on May 2 and paid for them on May 27.

The department waited another seven weeks before providing the index card file on July 14.

Shaw said copying all the records was time consuming for a department that was strapped for staff.

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Jeremy Kohler

  • Jeremy Kohler is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, MO).

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