Friday, August 6, 2010

Tulsa Police Department tells news media to use only e-mail to ask for public records

Reporters wanting public records from the Tulsa Police Department must use e-mail to ask for them, a police spokesman told news organizations via e-mail on Wednesday.

"Any request for documents or information through Oklahoma's Open Records Act will now need to be emailed directly to," police spokesman Capt. Jonathan Brooks wrote.

"E-mailing of requests will allow for improved record keeping and fairness to all media outlets. All requests will be reviewed on a first-come first-serve basis," he added.

Brooks told the FOI Oklahoma Blog on Thursday that reporters could still request records in person.

"However, it will fall in line with requests already received," he said. "In person requests will be in writing and we will actually do the email process for them."

Brooks described the new procedure as more efficient and fairer to all news organizations, saying:
In no way do we want to diminish access to government records. This decision was made in fairness to all media outlets. We would receive different requests through different personnel, through different mediums and often times were duplicating efforts.

This change is only for the media and should make the process easier by not requiring the use of the request form. e-mail is the preferred method as it is easily tracked and will provide equal access to all media (a fairness issue).
Brooks said the e-mail replaces a .pdf form "that was cumbersome and often times had to be faxed in and difficult to track."

"We will still accept those requests, but by popular demand, email is more prevalent, easier to use and easier to access, especially via mobile phones," he said.

Ironically, the department will not accept e-mailed requests for free copies of police reports provided to victims of crimes and traffic collisions.

“In accordance with city ordinance, victims of crimes and collisions may receive one report copy without a charge being assessed. The victim must appear in person to verify identity. Email requests for free copies will not be honored," according to the TPD website.

Brooks emphasized Thursday that the new policy does not change the news media’s "day-to-day communications with the Public Information Office."

"I think all of our 'regular' reporters know the difference between a question and an Open Records Request," he said.

However, the police department's records policies seem to conflict with state attorney general opinions regarding access to public information.

For example, funneling all media requests for records through one office runs contrary to a 2005 attorney general opinion requiring that government documents be made available where they "are located in the ordinary course of business."

State Attorney General Drew Edmondson said, “If a public body has more than one office location, its records must be maintained and made available to the public at the office where the records are located in the ordinary course of business." (2005 OK AG 3, ¶ 10)

“The Act does not expressly address at what office location records must be maintained and made available to the public if a public body has more than one office location. It is our opinion that the ‘prompt, reasonable access’ to records that the public must be provided under the Act indicates the Legislature’s intent that the public body's records shall be maintained and available at the office where the records are located in the ordinary course of business,” he said. (Id. ¶ 8)

A 1999 attorney general opinion had stated succinctly that “prompt, reasonable access” generally means “only the time required to locate and compile” the public records. (1999 OK AG 58, ¶ 15)

In a 2005 public records training video for police, Edmondson acknowledged that the time in which agencies must respond “varies with the circumstances.”

But he also distinguished between “a detailed request for records that’s going to require looking back over the past 12 months and pulling files that may already be in storage” and one for records “that are sitting right there on your desk and all you have to do is go to the copy machine.”

“In most instances,” he said, “open records requests should be responded to on the spot.”

Based on these opinions, a reporter requesting a document in person at the Tulsa Police Department's Records Division, for example, should not have to e-mail a request to and wait for it to be processed in order with other e-mailed requests.

Especially if any other member of the public may walk in and have a records request “responded to on the spot.”

The Tulsa Police Department’s policy also requires that the e-mailed requests include contact information for the requester.

Agencies may require that records requests be in writing, which “would help … ensure that the request is responded to fully and competently.” (1999 OK AG 55, ¶ 18)

But the information the government can require from the requester is limited.

“[A] public body or official … must have a clear basis in the Act or its enabling legislation to request information from a requestor in connection with a request for records pursuant to the Act,” Edmondson said in a 1999 opinion. (Id. ¶ 17)

Edmondson said the agency could request a name and mailing address if the requester asked that the records be delivered via mail. (Id. ¶ 20)

“It may also be reasonable to request the name and telephone number of a requestor … where it will take … until at least the next day to respond to a request. This would allow the public body or official to contact the requestor if a problem developed or, for example, if the requestor had asked for an estimate as to the fee once the public body or official determined such fees,” Edmondson said. (Id. ¶ 20 n.3)

His italicized emphasis on “request” indicates that, absent statutory authority to do so, the agency may not require the requester to provide a name and telephone number.

Brooks said the records procedures for the rest of the public “will remain the same at this time while we evaluate our efficiency in this media model.”

Brooks said the department’s “preferred response [to a records request] will be to provide electronic documents and reduce waste.”

That’s good news because providing documents as attachments to e-mails would speed the process and eliminate the need for copy fees.

The new policy certainly seems well-intentioned. But rather than limiting reporters to making requests by e-mail, the department should make that an option while also responding to in-person requests on the spot when possible -- just as it should be doing for the rest of the public.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media and Strategic Communication

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