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California’s public records laws are supposed to enable peopleto easily access public information from local governments. But the Chula Vista Police Department’s been discouraging residents from getting information through one of the simplest, most common channels, making it harder for citizens to know what local law enforcement is doing.
I know Chula Vista Police Department does this because it just happened to me. I wanted to email the department a records request to see how often and why police responded to a particular location.
I couldn’t do that, said Mary Burt, a senior data specialist with the department.
“We generally don’t take email requests,” Burt said.
Instead, Burt told me that I had to drop off the request at department headquarters or mail or fax my request. Chula Vista police don’t take email requests because the department is concerned about email security, she said.
The state public records law requires agencies to respond to any records request whether it’s made in writing, in person, over the phone, or, yes, through email. So Burt was wrong. And the police department’s policy on records conflicts with the city’s goal to foster a connected community, as outlined in their strategic plan.
After speaking with Burt, I called Terry Francke. He’s general counsel for Californians Aware, an open records advocacy organization.
Francke said CVPD’s reasoning for not accepting requests through email didn’t hold up.
“It can’t possibly be a sincere concern for security,” Francke said.
He suggested that what CVPD really wants is to know who is making requests so the department encourages people to submit them in person. But the law doesn’t allow that. Francke also worried that the general public would just accept the department’s policy without questioning it.
“They think, ‘This must be the law, if it’s the way they do things,’” he said.
My next call was to Ed Chew, an administrative services manager with Chula Vista police. He gave me a different answer than I got from CVPD the first time. There was confusion, Chew said, in the records department about what can and can’t be accepted through email. The department, he said, would be happy to take my records request through email. He said he was going to call the records department to ensure that it complies with California law.
This situation provides an example of why we’re doing our News Literacy project in Chula Vista in the first place.
We’re hoping to engage local residents and help them keep tabs on their community. Ensuring that their government and police department comply with laws ensuring access to public information is a first step.