TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: The early bird gets the worm, but the persistent requester gets the records

At a journalism workshop in San Francisco a few years back, a reporter for a small alternative newspaper shared her frustration with getting a local police agency to reply to what seemed like a reasonable request: How many complaints of police brutality do you receive, and what are their outcomes?

The response? We don’t keep track of that information.

That, I told her, is your story: That the police aren’t even curious whether complaints of brutality are increasing or decreasing. That they have no idea whether anyone ever actually gets punished. That they don’t even care whether there are two incidents of excessive force every year, or 200.

Sometimes, the failure to keep records is itself your public-records story. Here is one of those times…

In 2010, a trooper with the Utah Highway Patrol (“UHP”) was reprimanded for turning off her microphone while conducting a roadside sobriety test that led to an impaired-driving arrest. That disclosure led to the reexamination of numerous other cases involving the same trooper — which, ultimately, led prosecutors to conclude that she was an unreliable witness.

Reporters for The Salt Lake Tribune became curious. How often does this happen? How many of UHP’s other 425 troopers had similar disciplinary histories — or worse?

They asked the state Department of Public Safety (“DPS”), which oversees the highway patrol, and were told: We don’t keep track of that information.

So the Tribune wrote about the absence of the records:

The Tribune this summer asked the DPS for statistics on how many complaints it received annually and how they were adjudicated. DPS spokesman Dwayne Baird said the department had no such figures. … Utah’s DPS counterparts in Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona, however, supplied such statistics within days of requests from The Tribune.

And the reporters’ questions lit a fire under the state:

In its written statements this week, DPS said it can generate statistics on complaints, but doing so is ‘a laborious but not impossible task.’ DPS said it was implementing a new computer program that will make statistics more readily available.

This week, persistence paid off. The state released three years’ worth of statistics detailing how many complaints were filed against troopers, how many were determined to be well-founded, and how many were dismissed. Undoubtedly, it will never again take half a year to get those statistics in the future.

If agencies don’t keep good track of their own activities — or if their records are stored in such an inaccessible way that they are practically impossible to retrieve — that reflects mismanagement. When government officials insist that records don’t exist — or will cost $10,000 and take five weeks of work to reconstruct — good reporters don’t see a denial. They see a story.