Meridian Star

September 18, 2013

Chief addresses crime info issue

By Brian Livingston / blivingston@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —    Meridian Police Department Chief James Lee took the time Tuesday to address the crime information issue and pointed out that despite the department pulling out of participating in an Internet crime reporting website, the public is now getting the kind of information they have been wanting.

    "As mandated by state statute, we are providing the who, what, when and where," Lee said. "In some cases we are providing more information, depending on where we are in an investigation or if we have made arrests."

    According to the Mississippi State Attorney General's Office, Section 25-61-5 of the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983, gives the public the right to inspect, copy or obtain a copy of any public record of a public body. A police department is considered a public body according to the statute.

    An incident report, which states the basic who, what, when and where an incident occurred, is a public record. An investigative report, which goes into much more detail in terms of the investigation of the alleged crime, is exempt from the open records law.

    Last week the MPD stopped its participation in CrimeReports.com amid some confusion as to how the the website collected the information, the accuracy of such information, and the public's perception of both the information reported and the department's intentions in stopping the service.

    "I understand the concern of the general public and their desire to want to know what is happening in and around their homes," Lee said. "We are not trying to block information from the community."

    Ward Calhoun, chief deputy of the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department, said the agency has been a participant of CrimeReports.com for several years. He said once the service is set up, the website sends a signal every 12 hours to the LCSD system to see if any changes, or in this case, if any new incidents, were reported. The website then notes them on the website for the public to access.

    "One of the problems that come in, and I'm just speaking for us here at the LCSD, is that some of the incidents that show up on the CrimeReports.com website don't turn out to be that particular crime," Calhoun said. "The type of incident that is reported initially can change as the investigation progresses."

    Calhoun said as an example a person may walk into the LCSD and report a theft. A report is taken and entered into the LCSD system. This report then becomes an incident on its website when CrimeReports.com checks on the LCSD system during one of the 12-hour cycles. But that initial report, once it is handed over to an investigator to start his probe, may in the following days turn out to be a mistake by the victim.

    "We've had people come back or call us, or the investigator discover, that the victim's cousin came by to borrow the item without telling the owner," Calhoun said. "That is just one way in which the number and kind of incidents that show up on the website can be inaccurate."

    Despite these types of shortcomings, Calhoun said the agency will continue to use the website because they believe it is important for the public to see the types of incidents and where they may be occurring.

    "Just keep in mind that a few of the things you see on the website might be something else as our investigations mature," Calhoun said.

    Lee said it seemed more logical to stop paying for the service, which costs $1,100 per year, when the MPD is providing the information to local media.

    "The local media is the public outlet for police information," Lee said. "Why pay for it when we can get the information out to the citizens for nothing? I understand the website has offered the service for free. That is something that may be discussed at a later date. But right now, local media will be the place where the public can find out what is going on in their neighborhoods."

    The crime information issue at its height last week spawned two new Facebook groups, "Community Watch" and "Crime in Meridian Mississippi." Bruce McCary, who organized Crime in Meridian Mississippi, announced Sept. 11 his website would be discontinued in order to join with Community Watch.

    "We want to be a citywide neighborhood watch and this is the best way to do this," McCary said in explaining to his more than 500 followers why he is shutting down the site.

    As of Tuesday, Community Watch showed about 3,500 followers.

     Lee said as long as the information the department supplies to media outlets does not impede an active investigation, the information will continue to flow.