Legislation has police, sheriffs squaring off

Police and sheriff's departments usually stand together on the same side of the law.

But the two groups are at odds over SB 411, a bill that would create a Sheriff's Cooperative Authority in charge of setting up a computerized database of law enforcement records.

Anything from warrants and jail booking records to sheriff's arrest reports would then be available to the public for a "reasonable fee." Profits from fees would be used to operate the authority or to invest in training deputies. Backers of the bill have not yet determined how much money it might bring in or how much to charge for public access.

Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, said the authority would benefit the public by making sheriff's records more accessible.

But opponents, including the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, worry about whether the authority would have enough oversight.

Frank Rotondo, executive director of the police chiefs group, said the bill could be a power grab.

He's concerned police departments eventually will be asked to cede control of the management of their records to the authority, even though the bill doesn't require police agencies or even sheriff's offices to participate. (Sheriffs' participation is purely voluntary, and the bill doesn't prevent local sheriffs from continuing to provide public records for a fee out of their own office.)

Rotondo also is concerned that the sheriffs have not provided any estimates of the cost to set up the system, what they would charge and how much revenue it might bring in.

"You can't put a bureaucracy in effect with millions of dollars on the table without some budget review or statistical data on how effective it's going to be for the cost," Rotondo said.

Supporters say a statewide records system would aid in crime-solving because law enforcement officers across the state could swiftly determine if suspects are in jail. Investigators also could quickly see whether those suspects have had run-ins with other local authorities, Norris said.

Accessing sheriff's records would be free for all law enforcement and state agencies. Only public records would be accessible to the public on the website.

Having a statewide clearinghouse for computerized records would  save counties time and money, said Debra Nesbit, associate legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. It would reduce the workload on records clerks who have to manually compile and distribute public documents.

"You cannot imagine the cost savings and the crime it will solve," said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who also serves as legislative chairman for the Georgia Sheriffs' Association.

Sheriffs need to create an authority so they can apply for federal grants to get the records system off the ground, Sills said.

Such a system would help people like paralegal Nilda Sankitts, who works for Norcross DUI attorney Ben Sessions. Sankitts regularly trades snail mail with local sheriff's departments when she makes an open records request for mug shots and jail booking records.

She said she sometimes has to engage in four different mail exchanges over a single request for documents.

"I honestly believe it would be really great," Sankitts said of the bill. "It will allow me to have more time to communicate with clients as well as complete more tasks.”

The authority would consist of seven members: five sheriffs, a county commissioner and a Superior Court judge. Two members of the authority would be appointed by the governor, one by the lieutenant governor and one by the speaker of the House.

Those seven members would decide how much to charge the public for records, and submit a list of the fees to the General Assembly by Jan. 2, 2013. The authority also would choose which vendor would manage the database.

Rotondo said he worries about the potential for corruption, since the bill doesn't contain a provision that requires the authority to use a competitive bidding process before selecting a vendor, nor does it mandate a regular audit of the authority's finances.

The Georgia Tea Party also opposes the bill, which they said creates another layer of bureaucracy.

"These authorities are appointed, not elected, so the citizenry can't vote them out," said Bill Hudson, a spokesman for the Georgia Tea Party.

The inspiration for the sheriff's authority came from the Georgia Superior Court Clerk's Cooperative Authority, which maintains a statewide index of property deeds, liens and plats for the public to access.

The cost to access Superior Court clerks' records is $24.95 a month for a premium system that has a mobile application, $11.95 a month for regular unlimited use, or $5 for one-time access. The authority said revenue generated is about $1.6 million to $1.8 million per year.

The sheriffs say they will create a shared database whether the authority is created or not, but they won't give police or the public access unless they get the bill passed.

"This can only help the police departments and every other law enforcement in the state, because they will have access they have never had before," Norris said.