State Politics

Bill to shield data about police officers angers open government advocates

The father-and-son lawmaking team of Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Chris Latvala (pictured here) has angered open government advocates by seeking to expand privacy protections for current and former police officers as well as their parents, siblings and even their girlfriends.
The father-and-son lawmaking team of Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Chris Latvala (pictured here) has angered open government advocates by seeking to expand privacy protections for current and former police officers as well as their parents, siblings and even their girlfriends. Florida House of Representatives

The father-and-son lawmaking team of Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Chris Latvala has angered open government advocates by seeking to expand privacy protections for current and former police officers as well as their parents, siblings or anyone else they may live with.

The two legislators have filed similar bills in the Legislature that would keep secret driver license numbers, license tag numbers, email addresses and “former places of employment” for current and former law enforcement officers.

The bills say the new exemptions are needed to protect officers from physical or emotional harm or stalking.

“There just seem to be a lot of people that have a negative view of law enforcement, and want to do them harm, so I wanted to give them extra protections,” said Rep. Latvala, a newly elected lawmaker from Palm Harbor.

He said he was concerned about an anti-police mentality in the wake of officer-involved shootings and altercations in Ferguson, Mo., New York City and elsewhere that led to widespread protests across the country.

In Tallahassee, Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, which tracks legislative proposals to exempt information from disclosure, said the bills would create new barriers to Floridians’ constitutional right of access to information. She called on both lawmakers to withdraw their proposals.

“The proposed exemptions effectively eliminate oversight and accountability for these personnel by taking their entire history out of public view,” Petersen wrote. “Public oversight and government accountability are the bedrocks of open government.”

Shielding police officer records can have consequences. In 2011, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune ran a series detailing how the process for investigating and disciplining Florida police officers and prison guards has been flawed at several levels, allowing troubled lawmen to return to work after repeated acts of misconduct.

Under the Latvalas’ proposals, thousands more current and former officers would also be covered by the new protections, including specified employees in the state departments of Health, Children and Families and Revenue; current and former correctional officers and correctional probation officers; and current and former assistant state attorneys.

Their bills seek to keep private former home addresses, “including residences in which (they) frequently reside,” in addition to similar information about their “parents, siblings and cohabitants.”

Sen. Latvala, R-Clearwater, said the bills are a result of an incident in which a Clearwater man used Florida’s public records law to gain access to an officer’s personnel file and allegedly stole Sgt. Stephen Wannos’ identity.

Wannos said he received several credit cards at his home that he did not request. The senator said a Fraternal Order of Police lodge asked for the expanded protections.

Police charged Daniel Holuba, 57, with five counts of identity fraud. After his arrest in December, Holuba said police and prosecutors “have just ridiculously ganged up on me.”

However, the critical personnel information needed to steal the officer’s identity, including his date of birth, Social Security number and home address, is already exempt by law. That information was inadvertently released in the Holuba case, Clearwater police spokesman Rob Shaw said.

Still, there’s a need for additional privacy protections for police officers and their families, says Jon Walser, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Clearwater.

“The individuals that are targeting my police officers are dangerous, wanted felons that have an intent to do harm to my officers and their families,” he said. “I didn’t sign up for my wife, my family or my children at their elementary school to be targeted.”

Walser said he thinks there’s a need for transparency and accountability but not at the cost of privacy and safety.

Sen. Latvala said he doesn’t want officers’ employment histories to be secret. He said he will file an amendment to make that change.

“That’s not my intention,” he said. “If it didn’t get taken out, it’s going to get taken out.”

Rep. Latvala also said he did not intend to shield employment information that would protect wrongdoing by officers.

Even if that change occurs, Petersen said, the First Amendment Foundation still opposes the bills as too broad.

The House version (HB 1015) gets its first hearing at 4 p.m. Monday in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. Rep. Latvala is a member of the committee.

A leader of a statewide police union, Matt Puckett of the Police Benevolent Association of Florida, said the PBA wants the bills passed.

“We want to protect our officers as much as possible, and we think this helps,” Puckett said.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Laura Morel contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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