Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"Police agencies' obstacles can stymie open records requests"

From JSOnline:

By Terry Spencer, Associated Press

"Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — When the editor of a gay-oriented newspaper in Florida requested records that he thought should be public, he cast a wide net, asking that the email of every employee of the Broward County Sheriff's Office be searched for specific gay slurs over a five-month period.

"The sheriff's office initially told Jason Parsley that his request would cost $399,000, take four years and require the hiring of a dedicated staffer. The response set off a public-records marathon that lasted nearly a year. The Associated Press featured Parsley's effort last year during Sunshine Week, a national government-transparency initiative that takes place each March, and then decided to join forces with his newspaper, the South Florida Gay News.

"The goal was to determine whether such police emails were indeed public and, if so, how the public and media could obtain them in a timely and cost-efficient way.

"After making multiple records request to four Florida law enforcement agencies, the two news organizations have at least a partial answer, which could provide a blueprint for other news organizations reporting on police accountability.

"As law enforcement agencies have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, media organizations, watchdog groups and others have become more vigilant about filing public-records requests for emails and documents, particularly after police shootings. Police agencies have not always complied, and those that do sometimes put up obstacles, charging fees that many open-government advocates say are excessive and aimed at keeping hidden information that should be public.

"'They throw up ridiculous costs, ridiculous delays as a roadblock,' said Barbara Petersen, head of Florida's First Amendment Foundation. 'If you throw out a humongous number, the person is going to walk away,' particularly private citizens who often do not have the money to hire lawyers or the know-how to challenge inflated fees.

"In many states, including Florida, government agencies can waive records fees if they deem releasing the information in the public interest. While it is routine for media organizations and others to seek such waivers, it is rare for agencies to grant them.

"Other examples of excessive fees abound in Florida and elsewhere."

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