In 1997, Kendall Clark, Charlie Lindahl, and Russell Fish formed The Open Records Project. The project’s revolutionary mission was to make public documents available for free on the then new Internet.
The Dallas Examiner agreed to sponsor the effort and provide the server. Brainfood created the distinctive graphics for the WEB pages. The first documents made available were 10 years of checks written by the Dallas Independent School District. The financial abuses as evidenced by these checks ultimately led to a fraud audit, several indictments, and a new superintendent.
In early 1998 a woman approached the Project about making state sex offender records available. A tussle with the Texas Department of Public Safety ensued. The state made various excuses why the information we requested was not public, would be incredibly expensive, or would some how violate the right to privacy of convicted sex offenders. With help from the State Attorney General we ultimately prevailed, and in April 1999, the Texas Sex Offender database became the first free public sex offender database in the country.
What happened next has entered the lore of Internet history. The Dallas Examiner database server which had been receiving about 5,000 queries a day became deluged by requests. By the end of May it processed over 50,000 queries a day and the server was unreachable during the busiest hours of the afternoon. By June the server was so overloaded it was shutting down several times a day from the load.
Over a weekend in late June we created a new technique to speed database searches. During the next six months queries increased to 100,000 and then 200,000 per day. By November The Dallas Examiner server was frequented more often than The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal combined.
During this period we continued to request and post sex offender updates from the State. We upgraded the site to show maps to offender homes and later added photos.
Server logs showed we were being accessed not just from Texas but from all over the world. The server load peaked around December 1999 at over a million queries a day. Page view logs consistently placed the server among the 10 most accessed in the country. During the busiest time of day we were processing almost 200 queries each and every second. We received a thousand emails a day.
Letters fell broadly into three categories:
Supportive: “I looked up my baby sitter and found ……”, “My handyman just got out of jail for ….”, “My husband has a record for….”
Offended offender or offender’s spouse: “I’ve already paid my time…”, “How dare you invade our privacy…..”, “I’m going to hunt you down….”
Innocent bystander: “I just bought a house listed as belonging to a sex offender…”
In the 1999 session, the Texas Legislature passed a bill calling for The Department of Public Safety to publish names, addresses, and photos of convicted sex offenders on the Internet.
When the state system came on line we linked our database front end to theirs. Other states quickly passed similar statutes and we linked to their databases until we had a total of 25 state sex offender registries.
Why Did We Do It?
The magnifying glass on the Examiner masthead signifies the probing journalism necessary to educate enquiring readers. The Open Records Project similarly believes an informed citizenry is an activist citizenry.
What Did We Learn?
We learned that when given information most people make the right decision. In an attempt to block release of the sex offender registry, the State had alleged that the information was too sensitive and that citizens would act rashly. The State contended that offenders would be harassed, attacked, or worse. None of this happened of course. A single incident in South Dallas may have been aggravated by the offender registry.
What did happen was that over time various day care workers, school teachers, Boy Scout leaders, resigned or were removed from positions that brought them in contact with children.
We also learned that when not closely watched, the government may lie down on the job. After receiving hundreds of letters complaining of incorrect sex offender addresses, an investigation revealed that thousands of offenders were not being adequately tracked by their probation officers. As best we can tell, the State has improved its tracking of released offenders.
We also learned that sometimes without oversight the State will take unreasonable if not illegal action. Through our database we identified several dozen halfway houses that anonymously warehoused up to 50 sex offenders at a time in residential neighborhoods, in one instance apparently within 200 feet of an elementary school. As best we can tell, this practice has ceased.
We also learned that several hundred registered sex offenders were in fact male minors who were convicted of having sex with other similar aged minors. It is my understanding that the law has subsequently been changed. We still receive several court orders a month to remove minors from the database.
What Has the Public Learned?
One would hope the public has learned that to be safe, you the citizen, must become informed.