It's not hard for a law enforcement agency of any size to serve the public well by knowing and observing the basics of the California Public Records Act and treating inquiring citizens with dignity and respect. While many departments audited last month (with results released this week) seem to have mastered those essentials, a disturbing minority showed performance so far below these norms that they almost seem contemptuous of them.
of the best-intentioned departments took CalAware up on its offer of
free training in the past few months, and for these sessions we developed a model policy statement, (legally annotated version free on request) designed to serve three purposes:
• putting the chief or sheriff on the record as stating the guidelines and procedures the department will follow to assure prompt, courteous and meaningful responses to information requests;
• providing a posted and leafleted briefing on what to expect, addressed directly to the the public; and
• providing a clear and concise training reference for department employees dealing with information requests.
While departments sending staff to our training sessions seemed to find the experience positive and helpful, at least one law enforcement professional organization discouraged its members from participating. It's easy to convince departments not to trust an organization like ours that has the gall to test their legal and professional performance, assign a grade to the results, and publish it all. But we know enough now about those doing the best job at sharing information with ordinary citizens to suggest that there is no shortage of training exemplars in the law enforcement community itself. If there is some way that the best performers could help brief and bring along the rest, one could not ask for a better solution.
Meanwhile, departments assuming that they can charge citizens far more than the direct cost of duplication for copies of crime and accident reports, tapes and photographs need to stop simply taking consultants’ recommendations for these inflated fee levels and instead consult their legal counsel. A class action lawsuit to recover years of fee overcharges could be extremely costly.