Political News

Secret police possible at Arkansas Capitol, perhaps colleges

Posted March 14

— The agency that protects Arkansas' state Capitol and grounds now has the authority to operate in secret after the governor let a Freedom of Information exemption become law without his signature.

The measure, Senate Bill 131, was intended to close loopholes that some believed would let anyone access security assignments and becomes law without the signature of Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

"He did not sign SB131. Too broad," Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said without elaboration.

As the bill is written, it would prevent disclosure of any information about the force: its size, its racial or gender makeup or any officer's salary. A similar bill extending privacy to police forces at state-funded colleges and universities received final passage in the Senate on Tuesday.

Under Arkansas law, a bill that the governor fails to sign within five days becomes law if legislators are in session. Tuesday was the sixth day since the Capitol Police bill won final passage.

Open records advocates have said the rollbacks would be the greatest ever for the state's 50-year-old Freedom of Information Act. Sen. Gary Stubblefield had introduced the bills, saying the culture has "disintegrated" to the point that police officers are often targeted solely because of their jobs.

"Thirty or 40 years ago, there wouldn't have been a need for a bill like this," Stubblefield said last month.

A Democratic Legislature and Republican governor crafted Arkansas' FOI law in 1967, ending the government's practice of deciding for itself what the public could see. Until this year, legislators had carved out fewer than two dozen exemptions. A dozen possible new exemptions came up for discussion in 2017.

Exemptions authorized over the last five decades include correspondence from the governor and legislators, certain health department records and water system maps.

The campus police bill now on its way to the governor came up after the University of Arkansas searched for ways to reject an information request from a sports photographer who wanted to know whether a police officer she had accused of rape would be working on a freelance basis at a Razorbacks football game. The school denied her request using the water-system exemption — citing a general need for public security.

In discussing the Capitol Police bill, members of a House committee told open records advocates two weeks ago the bill was needed because the media had written about plans for a secret tunnel from the governor's office in 1998. Scuttlebutt throughout the Capitol halls revealed then that Gov. Mike Huckabee wanted an escape route — a wooden ladder in an abandoned dumbwaiter shaft — after wheelchair-bound protesters gathered near his office. At the time, the portly governor had no way to avoid the mob.

The plan was scrapped after the plans were disclosed, then completed using a metal ladder in 2001. At a later time, the governor's staff later showed the escape route to some reporters.

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Follow Kelly P. Kissel on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kisselAP and go to http://bigstory.ap.org/author/kelly-p-kissel to see his work.

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