If you can imagine yourself, as a non-journalist Californian, wanting to know more about what really happened in the rumored break-in near your workplace or the apparent arrest down the street last night, be prepared for some resistance if you call up or stop in at the police or sheriff’s department and ask for the basic facts.

The news media get a certain feed of these who-what-where-when specifics, and the victims of crime can get copies of the police reports that more thoroughly record the incident.  But in far too many communities, as an uninvolved, non-media third party, you may be required to state your name and purpose for even asking—and then get little or no information in return.

How do we know this?  A significant sampling of local law enforcement agencies that CalAware has organized over the past year leaves us with this sobering conclusion.  These agencies shouldn’t behave this way, but too often they do, as documented in walk-in audits done first last December and again in mid-October.

Full details including department names, itemized queries and responses, numerical scores, letter grades, and a narrative report of each auditor’s visit are available for both the first and second audits—the latter reported this week by participating news organizations (and some non-articipants) such as KGTV 10News in San Diego, the North County Times in Oceanside, the San Bernardino Sun, the Redding Record Searchlight, the Half Moon Bay Review, The Reporter in Vacaville, the San Jose Mercury News, KGO-TV in San Francisco, the Palo Alto Weekly and the Berkeley Daily Californian.
But today and tomorrow I’ll summarize the four main impressions gained over the two audits.

1. Small Is Dutiful?
Generally speaking the smaller departments seemed to perform notably better than the largest. Police departments with 200 points or more (combining their legal compliance and customer service performance) were those in the cities of Banning, Coronado, Half Moon Bay, Lincoln, Rocklin and Santa Rosa. Only a few points below were Brentwood, Campbell, Davis and Redding. The biggest department with a score in this high range was the Contra Costa County Sheriff. Otherwise, some of the largest departments did not have impressive composite scores: Los Angeles County Sheriff (125 out of a possible 210), Riverside Police Department (126), San Diego County Sheriff (Vista and San Marcos stations—125), and San Francisco Police Department (110). One explanation might be that the smallest departments have much less crime to deal with, but then their records staff would normally be much smaller as well. At any rate, it is clear that a department need not be huge or even of medium size to do a first rate job in comp lying with the public records law and dealing with information requests courteously, professionally and promptly. On the contrary, departments toward the large end of the spectrum often have the farthest to go in meeting these standards. ??

2. A Distrusted Public
About half the departments audited demanded to know the auditor’s name, affiliation or purpose for requesting the information, or some combination of these disclosures. Making these revelations a condition for obtaining the kind of information requested here violates the Public Records Act. Departments can ask the purpose of the request in order to help the requester, but cannot insist on knowing. And yet that point either has not been included in many departments’ training or has been allowed to be forgotten. The result often unmistakably conveys distrust to the requester and may intimidate pursuit of the inquiry altogether. This “Who wants to know?” response is justified by some as necessary to keep criminals from getting information that could threaten someone harm or frustrate the successful completion of an investigation. But the Legislature’s solution for that concern is to allow departments to withhold certain otherwise public information based on either or both of those rationales, depending on the facts of the particular case. And in such rare instances the denial of access must extend to all requesters, including the press, and must not depend on the requester’s identity, affiliation or purpose. The Legislature has pre-defined the level of information all citizens are presumed to have a right to, and they have the right to remain silent about who they are and what they mean to do with the information. ??

3. The Nosy Neighbor Myth ?
By far most of the departments that refused to disclose any information to the requester who walked in and asked to learn more about a particular burglary (23 percent of those audited) did so on the mistaken belief that only victims are entitled to any substantial information at all about crimes—that others have no need to know and thus no right to know. This attitude is perfectly reflected in the following excerpt from a July 19, 2007 story in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin:

Dorothy McKnight was concerned about the effects a Wal-Mart Superstore would have on her neighborhood and wanted to know the number of traffic collisions near the proposed site.                     McKnight, an Ontario resident, said she believed the streets around Mountain Avenue and Fifth Street were already prone to collisions and the store would exacerbate the problem. She said this week she called the Ontario police station for that information but was told it was private.
    McKnight said after she clarified she only wanted the number of collisions—not details about the parties involved—she was told she had to first fill out a form at the station.
    When she reviewed the form, though, McKnight said she was uneasy with the questions it posed, such as, why she wanted the information—so she hesitated.
    Police Officer Anthony Ortiz said citizens have a right to traffic and crime statistics. More information is not guaranteed, though, he said. If you’re a victim or a party involved, you get all the names, details, etc.," Ortiz said. "But if you’re just being a nosy neighbor down the street, you’re out of luck."

True enough—you’re always out of luck with a law enforcement agency that doesn’t know the law.