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(Correction: The original version of this story stated that the San Diego Sheriff’s Department received an F for legal compliance. The score was based on an auditor’s report that the Sheriff’s Department had not responded to a written request for information. voiceofsandiego.org subsequently learned that the Sheriff’s Department did, indeed, respond to the auditors’ written request by e-mail within the 10 days it is allowed by law. As a result, its grades were substantially increased, to an average grade of C.)
Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007 | The vast majority of San Diego’s law enforcement agencies are still not meeting the basic requirements of California public records law, according to an audit organized by Californians Aware, an open government advocacy group.
The California Public Records Act requires that such information, including traffic accident reports, crime logs and an agency’s financial records be made available to the public. In theory, any citizen should be able to walk into their local police station and pick up a report on a crime that has been committed in their neighborhood.
But when auditors in San Diego tried to do just that they came up empty-handed time and time again, according to the audit. The auditors visited the major police stations for 12 law enforcement agencies in the county and asked for a police report on a recent burglary or other property crime in the area. The auditors took notes on everything from how they were treated by police staff to how long it took to get their results.
Felicia Kitt, a producer with 10News, was one of the auditors. She tried to get public information from several San Diego Police Department stations but had little success. In an interview outside SDPD’s western division on the day of the audit, Kit said she had been met with courtesy, but confusion, from the officers she petitioned for information.
“I would think that they would have the information,” Kit said. “But they didn’t attempt to look at anything, they just referred me to other phone numbers to call.”
The auditors also mailed in a written request for documents. Under California public records law, agencies have 10 days to respond to such requests. Most of the county’s agencies met that goal.
The auditors also took note of how much the agencies charged for copies of public documents, and in the written request asked agencies to explain how they calculate their charges.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department received a C for legal compliance in the audit. Last year, the department received an F-minus. The state average was a C-minus.
The Sheriff’s Department refused to answer specific questions on the audit Monday and Tuesday. Instead, it issued a press release responding to the audit. The response said the requests for information they were given during the audit were “ambiguous” and “did not comply with the requirement of the California Public Records Act.”
Emily Francke, executive director of Californians Aware, said the improvement in the Sheriff’s grades this year were encouraging, but said the department still needs to change its attitude when dealing with public information.
“I’m certainly pleased to see they improved their scores, but I do have some reservations about their attitude about the audit,” Francke said. “They didn’t seem to be very open in this process.”
(voiceofsandiego.org is a paying member of Californians Aware, which provides journalists and others with legal advice on obtaining public information.)
The San Diego Police Department received above-average grades for its customer service and average grades for legal compliance. Francke praised the department’s improved grades this year — last year it received an F-minus in the audit — but pointed out that the SDPD’s C-minus average grade for legal compliance still means the department isn’t abiding by state law. Any agency receiving less that 100 percent for legal compliance is still breaking the law, Francke said.
San Diego Police Department officials did not respond to questions submitted about the department’s performance in the audit. Instead, the department released a statement, part of which reads: “We are pleased with the results of Cal Aware’s most recent audit. The SDPD prides itself in being open and consumer friendly in the way it provides information to the public.”
Kevin Keenan, executive director of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the audit shows local law enforcement agencies consider themselves above the law when it comes to providing public information.
In contrast to San Diego’s larger agencies, Coronado Police Department received a grade of 100, or an A-plus, for legal compliance and 105, also an A-plus, for customer service. That earned the department the highest combined grade of all the agencies audited in the state.
Mike Lawton, acting chief of the Coronado Police Department, said the number of information requests his agency receives has increased in recent years as residents have become more aware of their rights under the California Public Records Act.
“We’re very proud of our hardworking staff who process those requests,” Lawton said. “This is quite an accomplishment.”
Francke said it’s not surprising that larger agencies are not as effective as smaller agencies in providing public information to citizens. Larger agencies have a lot more information to process, she said, and that information could well be spread out among different parts of the organization.
But San Diego’s law enforcement agencies need to do more than simply boost their customer-service levels when it comes to complying with state law, Francke said. Being polite to people who ask for information is not enough if that information is still not forthcoming, she said.
“You can be nice and helpful and friendly,” she said. “But as far as not breaking the law, obviously that wouldn’t apply. A very friendly thief isn’t just going to get off.”