It seemed like a public service, a matter of convenience, a way to make government more accessible to citizens. And so the St. Louis County Department of Revenue in October began putting property records online. With the click of a mouse, anyone with a computer and Internet access could find out who owns what.
No longer. After some cops protested, the county last month changed its Web site to prevent the search of property records by the owner's name. Police in two of the county's municipalities, Florissant and Maryland Heights, said they were worried that people could find out where cops live -- and then who knew what might happen?
Never mind that anyone with bus fare can still get that information, free and without asking, by using the county's computers in Clayton. This is, after all, public information. Tom Kendrick, systems manager for the Department of Revenue, says he agreed to change the Web site, but he isn't happy about it.
"You'd be hard-pressed not to find a large county that doesn't have this out there now," Kendrick says. "To keep something from ballooning into something it probably didn't need to be, I relented and said, "All right, we'll take it off the Internet.'"
No one can point to a case in which an officer has been harmed as a result of cybersnooping through county property records. And no one -- police officers, judges or fugitives from justice -- can really breathe any easier now that the county has changed the real-estate Web site. So much of the information the county is concealing is easily available on the Internet, county Web site or no.
Just ask Harold Moranville, a private investigator in Chesterfield. For years, Moranville has been able to dig up addresses for just about anyone, using locator services on the Internet. "This has made our job so easy it's unbelievable," he says while finding the address of a reporter with an unlisted phone number. The job takes less than a minute. "I couldn't be happier. And every day, it's getting a little bit easier. Nothing's sacred anymore."
Kendrick agrees: "The issue is, nobody can really hide anymore. If you're smart enough to log onto the Internet, I can guarantee I can get you a map to your house."
Though the county's Web site still allows record searches, the user must know the address, subdivision or tax-parcel identification number. Since the Web site was changed, Kendrick says, he's been flooded with protests. "Matter of fact, I've had more hate mail for taking it off than ever I did for having it out there," he says. Complainers include collection agencies, bankers, Realtors and out-of-towners who say they're trying to find relatives, Kendrick says.
Even the police are inconvenienced. Detectives in some departments had been using the Web site for official business. Maryland Heights Police Chief Neil Kurlander says his detectives first thought the online property records would be a great investigative tool for cases ranging from money-laundering to tracking down wanted people. "It became obvious you can reverse that," Kurlander says. So he wrote an Oct. 18 letter to County Executive Buzz Westfall and the County Council raising his concerns. Kurlander says none of his officers has been harassed. "We got it pretty quick," he says. "Somebody realized very quickly the potential."
Florissant Mayor James Eagan, who also asked the county to change its Web site, says his officers occasionally get harassing phone calls that they attribute to folks' finding out where they live from county property records, though there's no way to know for sure. Eagan says it's "a hard call, a very hard call" when it comes to obfuscating public information but that police officers need the protection.
Kurlander says he recognizes that property records are public information and that anyone can search for records by name at the county assessor's office. However, that's different than getting records at your home computer, he says, because you have to sign in to get the information at the courthouse. "We wanted an audit trail," he says.
Wrong answer. The assessor's office doesn't require anyone to sign any form before using in-house computers located in the public area of the assessor's office.
Eagan says it boils down to a matter of convenience. He doesn't foresee many folks channeling their anger toward an officer into a trip to the county building. "I think most of the people are too damn lazy to do it," he says.
The county's real-estate Web site is at revenue.stlouisco.com/ias/. Property records for the city of St. Louis are not yet online.