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D.C. Police and the Quest for Public Information

The relationship between cops and reporters can be like oil and water. The tension comes from police wanting hold back information as to not jeopardize an investigation or reveal too much strategy to the bad guys. Meanwhile, a reporter's livelihood depends on information -- the more, the better.

This story today looks at that tension, and Chief Cathy L. Lanier's efforts to step up media outreach by working with PR firm The Glover Park Group (it's a pro bono effort).

One hot-button issue along the lines of this topic is Freedom of Information Requests, better known as FOIAs. Journalists, non-profit groups, and regular citizens alike use FOIAs to get information from public entities. According to D.C. law, agencies must respond to FOIA requests within 15 days, or give a reason for the delay.

As of April 1, the police department has 117 FOIAs that they have not yet answered, said spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump. Of those pending, 64 have been awaiting a response for at least 15 days or longer. The oldest request dates to June 2, 2007. When asked by D.C. Wire why the agency still hadn't answered a request from nearly two years ago, or why more than half of the pending requests went unanswered for more than 15 days, Crump attributed the backlog to personnel.

"A civilian who handled FOIAs departed last fall. An officer has been handling the FOIAs and we were unaware until recently of a backlog," Crump said. "Since that issue came to light, the Chief assembled a team to assist in handling the FOIAs. The Chief reviews the status weekly. We also have interviews scheduled to fill a vacancy for a FOIA specialist."

At least two groups impatient with the department's FOIA responsiveness have taken legal action. District-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund filed a lawsuit earlier this month against the city alleging that the police department refused to disclose its orders and policies through a FOIA request filed by the nonprofit on September 29, 2008. "To date the District of Columbia has produced no documents whatsoever..." the lawsuit says. A hearing in D.C. Superior Court is scheduled for May 15.

The Fraternal Order of Police has also waged FOIA battles with the police department. In 2004 the police union requested information about disciplinary actions and EEOC investigations over a six-year period. The request is now also wrapped up in a legal battle that included a D.C. Superior Court judge in February ordering the city to pay some of the union's legal fees in the case, nearly $50,000.

Aside from the police department, how responsive is the rest of city government when it comes to requests for public information? The Office of the Secretary submits an annual report to the Council on FOIAs; you can check it out for yourself here.

Theola Labbé-DeBose

By Theola Labbé-DeBose  |  April 23, 2009; 2:38 PM ET
Categories:  Crime and Public Safety , D.C. Council , Theola Labbé-DeBose  
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Comments

"A civilian who handled FOIAs departed last fall. An officer has been handling the FOIAs and we were unaware until recently of a backlog."...... "The Fraternal Order of Police has also waged FOIA battles with the police department. In 2004 the police union requested information about disciplinary actions and EEOC investigations over a six-year period. The request is now also wrapped up in a legal battle that included a D.C. Superior Court judge in February ordering the city to pay some of the union's legal fees in the case, nearly $50,000."

Well, you can get the gist of a citizen's dilemma.

Point: never believe Chief Lanier, when ever the D.C. Police state, "no witnesses have come forward." One can never trust any one who hides any information that just may demonstrate why the D.C. Police have so many unsolved caseloads, and internal operational complaints irrespective of the Chief’s claims of unsolved case closures which is where the DC MPD destroys case files past three years that are in-fact unsolved.

Posted by: eglobegus | April 28, 2009 12:53 AM | Report abuse

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