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Judge tells state police to yield officers' photos

Public has right to see, blogger says by John Lynch | April 7, 2021 at 4:26 a.m.
An Arkansas State Police vehicle is shown in this file photo.

LITTLE ROCK -- A circuit judge Tuesday ordered the Arkansas State Police to turn over a collection of uniformed trooper photographs to a Little Rock blogger who frequently criticizes the police.

Special Judge William Wright, substituting for Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray, brushed aside arguments from state lawyers that providing the photographs would be illegal because of a provision in the law that protects the identities of undercover officers. Wright noted that the law shields only "current" undercover officers.

If the Legislature had wanted those protections to extend to every police officer who might work undercover, lawmakers would have written the law that way, Wright said. His ruling is expected to be appealed.

Russ Racop of the blogs Bad Government in Arkansas and Bad City of Little Rock, among others, sued the state police in March 2020 under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act after the agency refused to release the pictures. That was despite having done so in 2019, providing him with about 165 photographs. The pictures are used on the officers' identification cards. Racop specifically excluded undercover officers in his request.

He told the judge that the state police regularly publish identifying photographs of officers on social media and elsewhere, accusing the agency of selectively abiding by open-records laws.

"They're picking and choosing what they want to do," Racop said. "They're inconsistent."

Billy Bird, the senior assistant attorney general who is representing police, said the decision to give the photographs to Racop in 2019 was a "mistake" that was done without consulting legal counsel. That wrong decision does not require the police to turn over more photographs, he told the judge.

The police position is that Arkansas Code 25-19-105 of the Freedom of Information Act, as written by the Legislature and interpreted by the attorney general in 2014, means that the identification pictures "must" be withheld so police cannot legally provide them, Bird said.

In 2018, Racop took Little Rock police to court to get the same type of photographs of its officers under the Freedom of Information Act and won when Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen issued the same finding, even as the city argued that the photographs could not be released because of the undercover-officer protection exemption. The city did not appeal and turned over about 450 pictures.

At Tuesday's hearing, Wright questioned Racop closely about how releasing the photographs would serve the public interest and wondered whether publishing the pictures could aid someone who wanted to harm a police officer.

Racop said he keeps a collection of police photographs to use on his blogs and regularly updates that collection using the Freedom of Information Act. Racop said he's regularly the first to publish pictures of police officers whose behavior has been called into question.

He disputed that a single photograph is sufficient to even identify an officer but said that when officers are accused of wrongdoing or misbehaving, the public wants to know what they look like.

"The public has a right to know about these officers ... who're carrying a gun and can be the judge, jury and executioner," he said.

Racop said he has published personal identifying information about police officers on his blog for years but has never heard about any of those officers coming to harm.

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