Law Enforcement Agencies Join OPEA in Privacy Fight

Saying they face potentially life-threatening consequences, every major law enforcement entity today joined the OPEA in opposing the release of state employees’ birth dates.

“Our personnel deal with dangerous individuals in the course of our official duties, regularly encountering the most violent criminals who have much to lose,” said Kevin Ward, Commissioner of Public Safety. “The blanket release of our employees’ dates of birth to anyone who files an open record request—potentially including many of those criminals—could then subject our employees or their families to unwarranted intimidation or retaliation for doing their job.”
Ward was joined at a state Capitol press conference today by the OPEA, as well as other law enforcement representatives.

“I’ve been in drug enforcement for 23 years and we deal with some of the seediest underworld characters this world has to offer,” said Darrell Weaver, Director of the state Bureau of Narcotics. “I strongly oppose heading down this slippery slope of allowing anyone to obtain the identity and birth dates of our employees—especially undercover agents. It is unacceptable. As an administrator, I have to protect my employees. I believe strongly that allowing my employees’ personal information to be disseminated, especially if it gets in the hands of the kind of people we deal with at OBN, would be a grave mistake.”

Justin Jones, Director of the state Department of Corrections, agreed. “Our agency deals with thousands of inmates and even more offenders on probation,” he said. “As a result, any request for an employee’s date of birth should only be for a specific request and a specific case—blanket approval to release all employees’ private information goes way beyond the reasonable expectation of personal sacrifice these public servants have shouldered,” Jones said.

The OSBI was also represented, with Director DeWade Langley saying: “Over 100 of our employees have voiced concern because once you have a person’s full name and date of birth, you’re two-thirds of the way there if you want to steal someone’s identity. We are very concerned about employee safety, and making it easier for criminals to track our employees by giving them our employees’ dates of birth is of great concern to us.”

“There are so many different situations that can arise wherethe blanket dissemination of this information could be used to harm someone,”said Trent Baggett, acting Executive Coordinator for the District Attorney’s Council. “It could be used by an abuser to locate a former partner in a domestic violence situation. An assistant district attorney prosecuting gang cases could have his personal information provided to the defendant’s family, which could put that DA or his family in a compromising situation. This employee information should be provided in a surgical fashion only on a case-by-case basis,” Bagget said.

Russell Knoke, President of the state Troopers Association, joined OPEA for a joint press conference last week. Today, he echoed the same sentiments. “Our biggest concern is family and personal safety, the threat represented by an aggrieved member of the public one of our trooper’s may have dealt with in the past. To simply dump all troopers’ birth dates out there without regard to their personal safety is not acceptable.”

Other agencies participating shared similar thoughts. “Government should be a shield for law enforcement agencies by protecting the employee from retaliation from those who would obtain personal employee information and do harm to the employee or their families,” said State Fire Marshal Robert Doke. “As a governmental agency the administration is responsible to provide a certain level of security to our employees. Not only are we required to provide each employee with a safe work environment,but we must also meet a certain level of criteria in providing an expectation of privacy from the prying eyes of those who seek to gather our most private and personal information.”

Doke also said state agencies could face civil litigation for actual and/or punitive damages from state employees who suffer identity theft that occurs after the dissemination of personal information by state agencies.

Keith Burt, Director of the Oklahoma ABLE Commission, said “I do not want to take any action that would violate our disclosure obligations under the Open Records Act, or subject our agency to liability for attorney fees if we are unsuccessful in defending our decision not to disclose these birth dates. However, as a state law enforcement agency, I am concerned about the potential adverse consequences that could be suffered by our employees if these birth dates are disclosed to the public. I want to protect the privacy interest of our employees to the greatest extent possible.”

At issue is a batch request by The Oklahoman, who is seeking the release of confidential information on all 40,000 state employees. Current state law provides for the dissemination of salaries, job title and other information on public information, but excludes an employee’s birth date. The newspaper’s corporate parent also owns a direct-mail marketing firm.

Senator Debbe Leftwich this year authored SB 1753 which will keep a state employee’s date of birth confidential. It is supported in the House by Representative Randy Terrill.

“This is not a case where there has been an allegation ofcorruption or impropriety involving a specific employee or group,” Terrill said. “There has not even been a hint of wrongdoing involving anyone. This is just a fishing expedition based on the presupposition that every state employee is a criminal, crook, thief or wrongdoer just waiting to be discovered by the data miners and privacy pirates on a newspaper’s payroll.

“The paper’s request tramples on fundamental equal-protection and due-process rights, as well as public safety concerns,” Terrill said. “As policy makers, it is our duty to protect those fighting for all of us on the front lines of the war on crime, instead of sacrificing them on the altar of yellow journalism.”

Leftwich, meanwhile, says as a state administrator in the early 1980s, she faced a similar situation with the demand for the release of employee’s Social Security numbers. Today she is adamantly opposed to a blanket release of private information. “State government employees include everyone from janitors to undercover narcotic agents,” Leftwich said. “While the threat of identity theft is a real concern for every worker, there are even graver, potentially life-threatening consequences for those working in law enforcement if the state is forced to unveil their personal identifying information and the location of their families.”

The OPEA has been spearheading the fight against the releaseof private information, and today renewed their vow to protect state employees.

“We welcome the support of the state’s law enforcement community,” said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley. “The release of this information would adversely impact public safety and our law enforcement agencies’ ability to perform their jobs. These concerns could quickly translate into new crime victims as well as jeopardizing current and ongoing law enforcement operations.

“People expect to be safe in their homes, at their schools and on the streets,” Zearley continued. “Not only does law enforcement and public safety protect individual liberty but without it, other government efforts cannot succeed. If we do not pass SB 1753, public safety will certainly be compromised.”

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