Police blotters and the CPRA

Police blotters and the CPRA

Q: I freelance for a community newspaper and I cover anything that goes on in one city. I have been trying to deepen my coverage and want to check the police blotter more regularly, only when I went recently I noticed that it was a couple days behind. I went back a second time a day later and it was pointless because they hadn’t updated yet. I asked why and they said that they needed to review everything to make sure the information is safe to release and that it takes a few days. I said okay, and went back to check the public records laws. Is it true that police blotters (or incident logs with all the basic information) must be made available daily or whenever we request to see them? I also noticed the descriptions on the blotters were nonexistent. There is only a phrase that describes the type of activity, and no details. Is this something I need to take up with the police department there? I don\’t have any specific need for information on a daily basis, but I would like to be able to monitor what goes on in the city.

A: The California Supreme Court has held that the public does not have a right of access to the actual physical copies of the dispatch logs.  In a case called Williams v. Superior Court, 5 Cal. 4th 337 (1993), the California Supreme Court said that, in enacting the California Public Records Act (CPRA), “the  state Legislature … limited the CPRA’s exemption for law enforcement investigatory files,” in Government Code §  6254(f), “by requiring agencies to disclose specific information derived from the materials in investigatory files rather than the materials, themselves.”  Thus, the Court said, the “required disclosures of information derived from the records about  incidents, arrests, and complaints [or requests for assistance to law enforcement] need not, in most cases, entail disclosure of the records themselves.”

Here’s what the CPRA, in section 6254(f), says the department has to provide to the public: “the time, substance, and location of all complaints or requests for assistance received by the agency and the time and nature of the response thereto, including, to the extent the information regarding crimes alleged or committed or any other incident investigated is recorded, the time, date, and location of occurrence, [and] the time and date of the report, the name, age, and current address of the victim ….”  Agencies must also disclose to the public “[t]he full name, current address, and occupation of every individual arrested by the agency, the individual’s physical description including date of birth, color of eyes and hair, sex, height and weight, the time and date of arrest, the time and date of booking, the location of the arrest, the factual circumstances surrounding the arrest, the amount of bail set, the time and manner of release or the location where the individual is currently being held, and all charges the individual is being held upon, including any outstanding warrants from other jurisdictions and parole or probation holds.”

As a practical matter, however, many law enforcement agencies have decided it is easier to provide copies of police reports or particular pages of police blotters regarding a particular incident rather than orally provide the information that the CPRA requires them to disclose.  However, under the Williams case, they have an argument that they do not have to disclose the actual dispatch logs themselves if they don’t want to.

If you have not already done so, I suggest you contact the police department and submit a written CPRA request for the records you seek.  Unfortunately, the CPRA allows an agency to take up to 10 days to make a determination of whether to either, provide you with the documents requested or to notify you that your request has been denied.  (Gov’t Code § 6253).  Immediate access to up to date police blotters, therefore, may not always be possible.  You might want to try submitting a standing request for these blotters and let the police department know that you will be coming in on a regular basis for such records.  This may alleviate the burden of having to submit a new request every time you come in and may also help with respect to getting more up to date information from the department.

A sample CPRA request letter can be found on the CFAC web site at the following link: http://www.cfac.org/templates/cpraletter.html.