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