Storing paper records in the attic of a police station might sound like a practice from the distant past, but that’s what I learned happens in at least one rural North Carolina county. In fact, good old-fashioned paper copies of public records are still common in rural parts of North Carolina.

Part of our job here at the OpenRural project at UNC is to somehow get that paper out of the attic and onto the web, and do it in a way that’s financially sustainable for the staff of small papers.

i-3dced69823b1115ebb07dd8c29f88215-3695743740_f9514e8e60_m.jpg

To find out just how often records are stored only on paper, I talked to officials in nine police departments in three rural counties and found that paper was the format that many of the departments — and records requesters there — preferred. At four of the departments, police incident and arrest reports are handwritten.

But we also found that every single one of the departments is highly digitized when it comes to internal records management. Employees at about two-thirds of the departments stated emphatically that they do not post any information on the Internet — as though it would be bad public policy to do so — and would only provide the information in print format if someone asked for it.

The driving force behind the creation of digital records isn’t an interest in making public information widely available, but the ease of filing monthly data to the State Bureau of Investigation and sharing information with other agencies.

Only two departments — Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro — post any digital information online. North Wilkesboro pays a Utah-based company called CrimeReports.com to post an index of its records on a map and Wilkesboro makes some of its reports through PoliceReports.US, where visitors are asked to pay $2.50 for each copy of a record. Because of the lack of transparency, though, it’s impossible to determine whether records are being redacted or even withheld entirely.

paper still makes the cut

Even though digital records play an important internal role in most rural police departments, paper isn’t giving up without a fight. There were only two agencies — the sheriff departments in Columbus and Wilkes counties — that I could determine are truly paperless. In fact, in three police departments where records both started digitally and were transmitted outside the station in digital format, the records were printed out and filed using paper somewhere in the process.

One secretary described printing and hand-filing every police report, explaining that when the year is finished, she boxes up the reports and takes them to the police station attic. Those pages destined for the attic are the records that local journalists, insurance agents and attorneys request and receive.

These interviews with local law enforcement have begun to reveal the scope of the public records portion of the OpenBlock Rural project. Even if we wanted to scrape the websites of police agencies, there isn’t anything to scrape. On the other hand, it appears pretty likely that a good deal of digital records are going to be available to us. State law requires that public records must be provided in any format in which they are available and that agencies cannot use the need to redact some information from the digital file as an excuse for prohibiting access to any of it.

Eight of the 13 agencies in our sample all manage their records using a Microsoft SQL Server application built and maintained by Southern Software, which already has a function called something like “export for media.” It also should be relatively easy to export data from the Microsoft SQL database to a CSV format that can be easily parsed by OpenBlock. When we asked the Columbus County Sheriff’s department for incident and arrest reports in a digital format, they were very helpful in our initial meeting.

But we’re not out of the woods yet. One police department has balked at giving us digital records. And there’s still a ways to go between getting one day’s worth of records and figuring out how to set up a system that’s sustainable both for local government and newspapers. The good news is that we’re not going to have to spend too much time in the attic.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Sonrisa Electrica.