Governor Pawlenty signs Accessible Crime Alerts Bill

Persons with disabilities should find it easier to get updates on crimes in their communities, thanks to the 2009 Minnesota Legislature’s passage of the Accessible Crime Alerts Law. The new law was signed into effect by Gov. Tim Pawlenty on April 16, following unanimous approval by the House and the Senate.

It took two tries for this bill to be signed into law. I sometimes write about legislative issues but this bill was my opportunity to work first-hand on legislation.

The new law requires law enforcement agencies to provide violent crime alerts to citizens who request notification. It requires crime alerts to be distributed in a format that disabled citizens can easily access.

Thanks to the new law, some blind screen reader users will find it easier to access electronic crime alerts. A screen reader is a product blind people purchase and use to read anything that is on the computer like e-mail messages, surfing the Web, writing and editing documents and doing other tasks. If a screen reader cannot open a Portable Document Format (PDF) attachment, that’s not accessible.

The new law was a few years in the making. In 2006, I asked local elected officials to help me draft a bill to improve the access to electronic crime alerts for people with disabilities. My motivation for this bill was to increase the opportunity for those of us with a disability to have better access to electronic public safety information circulated among the general public.
Another motivation was to come up with some way to reduce the cost to law enforcement agencies to circulate public safety information. Accessible electronic crime alerts are less of an expense and more practical then door-to-door printed handouts. Blind people would not be able to read such print information without assistive technology or a sighted reader.

A visually impaired or blind person cannot easily read printed crime alerts handed out door-to-door, unless he or she has a Kurzweil 1000 reader programmed onto the computer to read printed documents scanned by a scanner. However, the Kurzweil program will not read print documents with graphics. It’s difficult to know how many people with disabilities have use of the Kurzweil 1000 equipment. I use the Kurzweil 1000 and it’s great for use to read text only documents. But the device costs almost $1,000 and may be out-of-reach financially for many people.

Another issue is cost to local units of government in tight budget times. It is an extra cost to design, print and go door-to-door to hand out paper print products. Not every community has staff or volunteers to handle such a task

Since more people use computers, a screen reader is a preferred way for persons with disabilities to read electronic crime alerts. It is a more practical way to circulate public safety information to a larger part of the general public.

Former Sen. Dan Larson, DFL-Richfield, helped to get the ball rolling on the proposed legislation. Also from the beginning, Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis helped me to draft the bill into an acceptable format for approval by the Legislature. Thissen introduced the accessible crime alerts bill in the House and it passed the first of several hurdles. Sen. Ken Kelash, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced SF 263 to the Judiciary Committee in the Senate. And like Rep. Thissen, Sen. Kelash also gave testimony as part of the process to explain the need for this bill.

Legislative Analyst Jeff Diebel made this all possible by taking my information and crafting a well-written bill that passed through all committees. Amanda Sames, legislative assistant for Kelash, kept me updated and informed at every step of the process.

Under the new law, all law enforcement agencies across Minnesota will be required to format electronic crime alerts in either MS Word attachments or use MS Word as a format for a crime alert in the body text of an e-mail message. That means any law enforcement agency that may have selected to use PDFs to spread such information must now use MS Word only when PDFs are not accessible by screen reader users. If a screen reader cannot open up a PDF, the Word documents are a necessary alternative to PDFs in the dissemination of information critical for public safety to those of us with a disability.

This is important because a blind person will not be able to access crime alert information if a PDF is not formatted for screen reader use. Not all blind people may have an updated version of a screen reader that may make it possible to read all websites and PDFs.
An upgrade to a screen reader may be too costly for some people. For example, it would cost me $550 to upgrade my screen reader program to a current and improved version. My screen reader would have little positive effect regardless if the screen reader version cannot access and read a PDF.

The new law also changes how information is disseminated by jurisdiction. Until now statewide law enforcement agencies had the option to distribute crime alerts to people only within a respective jurisdiction. Now it is easier to request information even if you do not live in a specific jurisdiction.

Some of us are often perceived as more vulnerable to assault, robbery or worse. And we’re at an increased risk of becoming a victim during turbulent economic times like these. Though this bill won’t solve all of the crimes carried out against those of us with disabilities, it will at least give us better access to information that will improve our public safety.