Sheriff’s central records’ staff shepherds mountains of documents

(Nice work Highlands SO!)

Caitlin Edwards, left, talks with Liz Peralta, the records management director, in the sheriff's office's central records office on Wednesday. Edwards is training to work in the records department after transferring from dispatch.

By ROBERT BOYER | Highlands Today

Published: October 21, 2011

SEBRING – Liz Peralta. Jennifer Edwards. Lindsey Worden. Caitlin Edwards.

You might not recognize their names, but if you’ve ever requested a record from the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, chances are you’ve spoken with at least one of them.

Peralta supervises the three records specialists of the sheriff’s central records office, which Administrator Robert Jordan oversees.

Together, the five are responsible for maintaining and safeguarding a virtual mountain of documents that flows through the sheriff’s office.

But Peralta and Jordan say there is much more to the job than logging documents into a computer. A big part of the job involves responding to public records requests from the media and county residents.

For a number of these requests, Peralta and her specialists must go line-by-line through documents and redact the names of juveniles or victims of sexual assault and other sensitive information as required by Florida law.

“Most people think we just hit a button and it prints out, redacted and everything,” Worden said.

The work is painstaking, Peralta said. On one request from the Office of the Public Defender, it took 35 hours to redact information from a rather large file.

Central records also must adhere to strict state requirements for maintaining records. The state audits the office every three years to make sure it is complying with those standards, Peralta said.

Some records, like scribbled interoffice notes to return a call, can be thrown away immediately. Other records must be kept for 100 years.

Converting paper documents to electronic formats so they can be stored long term is a huge part of the job, Jordan said. Currently, central records has about 4?million electronic documents on hand.

Electronic storage saves the county money and space, Jordan said.

Central records fully converted to virtual records in June 2006. Each year, Peralta said, her office scans about 144 cubic feet or 360,000 documents. Of that number, the office processes about 112,000 jail-related records, around 7,800 public records requests and disposes of 453 cubic feet or 2.2 million documents.

They also must verify that records are accurate, which involves — among other things — following up with victims.

The women are under tremendous pressure to maintain accurate records.

In some instances, supposed victims fail to notify law enforcement that an item initially thought to be stolen was actually borrowed by a friend and relative. If the records office doesn’t call and confirm that with the property owner, the person might get pulled over and charged with theft of their own property.

“They stay very busy,” Jordan said.

Sometimes, he said, the information requests are strange, such as the case of the cow with blazing speed.

About 18 months ago, a woman asked for a report on a cow that had been struck by a vehicle off U.S. 98 south of Sebring, 18 or so months before. Jordan and his team dug up numerous cow-related records and provided the woman a report, but nothing that matched her contention that the cow had traveled approximately 10 miles in two minutes.

And although Peralta and her charges aren’t sworn officers, sometimes their work leads to the solving of a crime. One case involved a person who reported a stolen vehicle. Peralta read a report of a vehicle that was burned “beyond recognition” and noticed similarities to the stolen vehicle report. In addition, the answers of the supposed victim in the grand theft auto report “seemed a little evasive and some of his answers didn’t seem to make sense to the officer,” Peralta said.

Different investigators were working each case and weren’t aware of the other’s work. Peralta got the investigators together and the supposed theft victim was eventually charged with filing a false police report and insurance fraud.

Sometimes, Edwards said, people will use somebody else’s name to request background checks that are supposedly on themselves. One woman who did this had an active warrant on her and ended up getting arrested and spending time in jail.

Attention to detail, professionalism and patience are qualities Peralta said she looks for when hiring a records specialist.

Caitlin Edwards is the newest member of the team, starting about a week-and-a-half ago. Jennifer Edwards has worked as a records specialist for three years, and Worden has been on the job for four years. Jordan has been with the sheriff’s office 11 years. Peralta is a 21-year veteran.

Helping people and hearing that crimes have been solved are the best parts of the job, the women say.

Jordan is a big fan of his current team, which he says is doing a great job.

[email protected] (863) 386-5838

Original article