Studies find some state police hostile during records requests

In Maine and Texas, recent surveys measuring compliance with freedomof information regulations showed law enforcement agencies violate their statelaws about one-third of the time.Both studies reported that lawenforcement agencies often would cooperate with the media more often than thepublic during requests for public information. Also common was police hostilitytoward the surveyors. A few surveyors even were followed after leaving the lawenforcement offices.”They treated you like you were a criminal … likeyou were out to get them,” researcher Jeanie Carter was reported as saying inthe Longview (Texas) News-Journal. “They acted like it’s information youhave no right to, and you have to prove yourself just to get it.”Onesurveyor in Texas was refused police reports and told that the matter would bereferred to a lawyer after she balked at paying $4 to photocopy each page. Whenthe surveyor asked the local newspaper, she was told that the day’s reports weremade available for reporters free of charge. In Maine, fees ran as highas $6 per page for anybody to copy the records, and 6 percent of the requestswere denied because the auditor was not a member of the media, but “just” thepublic.However, these surveys have inspired changes. Offices have begunposting the regulations in high-profile places, and officials are being educatedabout the law. The Texas survey has streamlined access toinformation in the Gilmer Police Department. “[The previous citymanager’s] past policy was [requests] had to come through him, then it had to gothrough the city attorney and then it’d come back to us,” said Chief of PoliceJames Grunden. “Now unless it’s just something that there’s a litigationinvolved in, or something like that, it does not go through all those steps.”Free-lance reporter Vanessa Curry spearheaded the Texas survey, whichgrew out of a spring 2002 independent-study class she taught at the Universityof Texas at Tyler, where she is also an adviser to the student newspaper. Afterher students’ results were in, she expanded the study to cover 14 counties. Withthe help of the Longview News-Journal and the TylerCourier-Times-Telegraph, the study was conducted from May to September andwas published in December.Volunteers from the university and the twopapers presented themselves as the general public rather than the media. Theyvisited 125 government offices in 14 counties to ask for public records,including daily incident reports and jail logs. The volunteers were instructedto dress neatly and keep journals noting whether or not the office surveyedcomplied with all three requirements: posting a Texas Public Information Actnotice, refraining from illegal questioning and producing the documents withinthe prescribed 10 working days.Only 16 percent of the offices surveyedcomplied with all three requirements. Law enforcement produced requested records68 percent of the time, behind city governments at 87 percent and schools at 82percent. However, law enforcement required surveyors to identify themselves,their employers or state the purpose of the request — all illegal understate law — 64 percent of the time.The Maine Freedom ofInformation Coalition and four of the five daily papers in Maine, usingsimilar techniques to canvass 310 offices in all 16 counties, found that only 49out of 74 police departments, or 66 percent, produced the requested information.Of the departments that complied, one-third or more required the auditors toidentify themselves, their employers, or give a reason for their request inviolation of the Maine Freedom of Access Law.”The public was aghast atthe audit results and generally supported the surprise aspect of the test,” saidJudy Meyer, Lewiston Sun Journal editor and coalition board member. “Weheard from hundreds of people who had tales to tell about their own experiencewith government, including a number of instances which probably qualify as civilliberties violations.”Upon seeing the audit report, the Maine Chiefs ofPolice Association decided to redo its policies and reeducate itsemployees.”We took the position that ‘OK, we may have made mistakes andwhatever, but we are going to train people and we’re going to do it right,'”said association executive director Robert Schwartz. The association is planningto meet with Meyers and have her participate in planning the Aprilseminars.Moreover, the Maine Press Association and the Maine DailyNewspaper Publishers Association have proposed two bills for consideration inthe upcoming state legislative session. One would require all police departmentsto have a written policy on public information access and the other would callfor a commission to study current Maine freedom of information law, includingall exemptions since 1960.And while the Texas survey may not haveproduced such dramatic reform, the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation hasseen an upsurge in the number of e-mails and phone calls from individuals havingtrouble public accessing information.Ultimately, public-records auditsare a tool to keep the government accountable, said Meyer. Curry favors more ofan educational approach.”I tried to explain as much as I could to peoplethat this is not a ‘got ya’ thing, it’s an educational thing,” Curry said. “Thepoint was not to get them, the point was to educate them.”