|Richmond Police Dept Receives F+ for
Requests for Records
January 13, 2007
The bad news is that the Richmond Police Department broke the law with respect to responding to public records requests. The good news, if there is any, is that we are not alone.
A West County Times investigative piece, which can be found for the next few days at http://www.contracostatimes.com/mld/cctimes/community/16444200.htm, describes a statewide audit finding law enforcement averse to requests for records--records the public has a right to see. Richmond's score of 40 out of a possible 100, a grade of F+, is also the audit's MEDIUM score. The Bay Area as a whole received a score of 37, a grade of F.
The statement accompanying Richmond's score states "Chief's secretary tells requester she has the chief's economic statement but says he can't see it. Requester was told dept. unsure if it can release arrest information."
Neither is the Police Department alone in Richmond City government, which still has a difficult time complying with local and state document production laws despite reforms put into place over the last couple of years.
Not only does the Police Department fail to comply with public records laws; it has the least user friendly and most intimidating physical public interface I have ever seen for a public agency. If you go to the Richmond Hall of Justice to transact any kind of business, you first enter into a cold and sparse lobby. You walk up to a fortified window that is designed to make sure you feel neither comfortable nor welcome. Then you stand there for however long it takes for someone working in the room behind the window to notice you and come up to find out what is you want – if you’re lucky.
I guess that some of this has something to do with security, but I don’t know why police have to be more fortified than any other City employee working at a counter where the public comes for service. After all, they are the only ones who are armed; you’d think, if anything, they would need less physical security, not more.
Posted on Fri, Jan. 12, 2007
California law gives anyone the right to walk into a police department and inspect a wide variety of information, from crime and arrest reports to statistics on officer-misconduct complaints.
A statewide audit of such access released today shows a wide gap between the law and what really happens when people ask to see public information at California police stations.
Police often violated laws that mandate open access to public records and delayed for weeks the release of ordinary reports, intimidating people who asked for them and researching requesters' backgrounds, according to the audit of more than 200 departments and California Highway Patrol offices, including 63 in the Bay Area. Written requests for records were sometimes ignored, and some departments refused to accept them.
More than 60 journalists across the state -- including 13 from the Times, six from other MediaNews newspapers in the Bay Area and KGO-TV -- participated in the audit, which was conducted Dec. 4 in 34 of California's 58 counties.
The effort was coordinated by Californians Aware, a Sacramento-based group that advocates for transparent government and records access. The group aims to educate government workers and the public about information that every person -- not just public officials or journalists -- is entitled to see.
In order to gauge the response an average citizen might face in making a public records request, journalists participating in the survey asked police for information without identifying themselves as employees of news organizations.
Auditors first asked verbally to look at the local police chief's statement of economic interest, a form that all high government officials are required by law to fill out disclosing their financial holdings. They then asked to see crime and arrest documentation for armed robberies, burglaries and sexual assaults covering a two-week period in November.
The auditors also gave the departments a written Public Records Act request asking to inspect documents that should be public, such as the police chief's employment contract, records of how the proceeds of assets seized from criminals are spent, reports on the deaths of people in the department's custody and the forms officers must submit if they take second jobs.
"The common experience was for a person to go in and be forced to identify themselves and their purpose and then walk away with nothing," said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware.'
So many departments' responses were so "absurdly wrong," Francke said, that taxpayers should have legitimate questions about the administration of police agencies.
One auditor was ordered to give an officer her Social Security number so her record could be checked for arrest warrants. Another was told he could see records only if county supervisors voted to allow it.
Several auditors reported that officers and record clerks yelled or laughed at them and told them they were not going to be allowed to see anything.
Francke said police departments were chosen to be audited for openness because, like any other public agency, they need intense citizen scrutiny over spending and policy. Adding to that need, he said, is the critical mission of law enforcement and its power to place people in custody, make urgent decisions about emergencies and, in extreme circumstances, take people's lives.
"We don't notice that our freedom is run on a system of being able to find out what the government, on all levels, is doing," he said.
Departments were graded on a scale from zero to 100 based on the records provided, the timeliness of the information released and the way the requester was treated.
The statewide median grade was 40. The median grade was 30 in the nine Bay Area counties, where scores ranged from a low of 5 for the East Palo Alto Police Department to a high of 94 awarded to the Dixon Police in Solano County, the highest grade in the state.
The lowest statewide grade was a zero, given to police in the Los Angeles suburb of Pico Rivera, where the auditor reported that the records clerk said that people "can't just walk in here and make these kinds of requests."
California Highway Patrol offices averaged a score of 29, sheriff's offices averaged 39 and police departments averaged 44. Three departments statewide -- or 1.4 percent -- had scores of 90 or higher.
CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said that the agency needed to take "appropriate action to improve our customer service" based on the responses auditors received at stations. She defended the agency's handling of written requests, which were all forwarded to the office of its general counsel in Sacramento.
The CHP requested a 14-day extension to Dec. 28 to provide access to the records, but that deadline was missed. Clader said documents were being mailed to auditors this week.
Francke said the CHP scores were especially troubling because agency lawyers attended a Californians Aware training session on the Public Records Act last year.
The audit shows that members of the public "have a much tougher time" than journalists in obtaining information from police, said Tom Newton, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association. The Public Records Act clearly "requires agencies to help the public" obtain records, Newton said. But that did not happen in most cases.
"It's these kinds of occurrences that create a huge distance between government agencies and the people that are supposed to be served by them," Newton said.
By cutting off the public from information it is legally entitled to, police are cutting themselves off from the type of community cooperation that can make law enforcement more effective and the public safer, said Mark Schlosberg, police-practices policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
One of the more troubling aspects of the audit is that agencies fared badly while being asked for just "very basic information," Schlosberg said.
"You have to create a balance between the department and the community," he said. The audit shows "the opposite (relationship) of what police should want to foster with the public."
The state's new attorney general, former Gov. and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, did not respond to questions about the audit findings.
Some police chiefs vowed to improve access.
"Collectively, I think law enforcement has gone through some tough times. The only way to regain the public's trust is by being open," said Pleasanton police Chief Tim Neal.
Neal, whose department received a score of 30, decried the persistent secrecy that characterizes many law enforcement agencies. "I really believe most of what we do could be done on a picnic table in a public park," he said.
Neal said he has tried to instill more openness in his department and plans to instruct his staff on records laws compliance and openness at a meeting Monday.
The audit results show that openness is far from the norm.
Among the findings:
• At the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office, the person requesting records was asked to provide her Social Security number so she could be checked for pending arrest warrants before records were provided. The law prohibits officials from requiring the identity of people inspecting public records.
• A records clerk at the Napa County Sheriff's Office told a requester he could not inspect arrest records and other documents unless the county supervisors voted to allow it. No special action is needed to make such records public.
• The clerk in charge of records at the Benicia Police Department told the requester that arrested people had to "sign off" on the release of information about them and referred the requester to a public library to look up arrest information in the back issues of newspapers. People arrested have no right to keep that information secret.
• A clerk at the San Mateo Police Department said each arrest and crime record would cost $50 to look up on the department's computer. State law allows charges only for making photocopies.
• Police at the Bay Area's three largest departments -- San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose -- failed to release any requested records. Oakland and San Jose would not accept written requests.
• The Los Gatos, American Canyon, Berkeley, Redwood City and San Mateo police were among the Bay Area departments that refused to accept written requests for records.
• The Fremont, Santa Clara, Pleasanton, St. Helena and San Leandro departments were among those that accepted a written request for records and then failed to answer it. State law requires agencies to respond within 10 days.
When confronted with these lapses, police chiefs offered a variety of responses.
"We screwed up," said Fremont police Chief Craig Steckler. A part-time clerk accepted the auditor's written request, and it was not forwarded to the right people, he said, adding that he has instructed the records manager to "make sure it doesn't happen again."
In San Mateo, an auditor stated that when she requested crime statistics she was told that identification would be required and that she would be charged for the request and she was asked about her reason for the inquiry. When she tried to give the clerk her written request, the clerk wouldn't take it, she wrote in her report.
The clerk told her that she could not help her with the written request, indicating that a public information officer could assist reporters' requests for information, according to the report.
San Mateo police Chief Susan Manheimer insists that the clerk never was offered a written request.
"I think it's pretty amazing that my public records supervisor would be accused of not taking a report that wasn't offered," she said. "So I don't put much credence in this."
The majority of police administrators contacted about the results said they were disappointed in their departments' failures. Most pledged to revamp procedures to prevent future problems.
In some cases, even departments that earned high scores behaved questionably the day of the audit. In El Cerrito, for example, records supervisor Loralee Palfini laughed and shook her head as she read the written request and then assured the requester she would be able to track down his identity even without his last name.
Agencies were scored in part on their willingness to give information and on whether they improperly cited state laws that allow some information to be kept confidential or erroneously said they were not required to give out information.
In Berkeley, where police records clerks refused to accept a written request, Mayor Tom Bates said, "It is totally unacceptable behavior. I have never heard of anything like this."
East Palo Alto police Chief Ron Davis said he was dismayed about receiving the lowest grade in the Bay Area, a score of 5. "Whether it's one day or ongoing, it absolutely concerns me," he said. "It sounds like we have room for much improvement."
Contra Costa County and the cities of Benicia, Oakland and San Francisco all have better-government ordinances that require greater transparency than the state Public Records Act does. Police in the three cities all received scores of 32 or lower. The Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office received a 51.
In Benicia, a records clerk repeatedly asked an auditor who she was and why she wanted to see records. Police Chief Jim Trimble said that response was not acceptable. "We are going to change our training to address some of these issues," Trimble said.
In Oakland, an auditor was unable to get anyone at police headquarters to accept a written request for records or even tell him whom to ask for crime and arrest records.
"That is unacceptable," said Mark Morodomi, supervising attorney of the city's Open Government Program. "We need to know where the roadblocks are."
In San Jose, where city leaders are pondering whether to pass a local law to make government more transparent, an aide to police Chief Robert Davis told an auditor that Davis' statement of economic interest was not a public document. The department also did not accept the auditor's written request for records.
A department spokesman, Sgt. Nick Muyo, said "someone should have taken" the written request.
In Newark, which scored a 78, largely based on what Californians Aware described as a very helpful response from the city attorney, police Chief Ray Samuels objected to the way the audit was performed.
"There was a better way to test open government than a complex document that required significant staff time to put together," he said. Samuels said he looked up information about the auditor on the Internet because he was curious who she was after hearing that other departments received similar information requests.
The results of the audit did not surprise San Bernardino County Sheriff Gary Penrod, president of the California State Sheriffs' Association. His agency received a score of 73.
"Most departments are going to take it as a learning experience and put some policies in place," Penrod said.
Livermore police Chief Steve Krull, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said the departments should release "lawful public information in a short period of time."
But, Krull said, "that probably isn't a walk-in, walk-out situation. It may take some time to compile the data." His department received a score of 40.
The auditor who visited that department was told by a records clerk that crime and arrest information was available on the department's Web site. Krull said he was fine with providing information to the public in that way.
However, because of a problem with an Internet server, Krull said the information could not be accessed by computer the day the clerk referred the auditor to the Web site.
MediaNews staff writers Angela Woodall and Leslie Griffy contributed to this story. Reach Thomas Peele at 925-977-8463 or email@example.com. Reach Matt Krupnick at 925-943-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.