A&A: Police say daily crime logs can’t be released to the public

Q: I have been seeking release of daily crime logs through the Police Department, preferably the day they are issued. The log is maintained by a patrol officer for 24-hour periods between 4 a.m. and 4 a.m. and through CPRA request have successfully
obtained past logs electronically in .doc or .pdf format.

However, the department Public Information Officer (PIO )has refused to provide the daily log when requested claiming they need to be double-checked for accuracy and can’t be publicly released. The department’s position is the log must either be read verbally over the phone by an officer or I can inspect it in person. When I went to PDHQ to review the log in person, an officer held it to the glass on the front window and said I could not take photos or notes.

I am arguing that the log must be delivered electronically by request per government code 6253.9, and that I must be allowed to inspect the document in person and duplicate as I see fit. The department PIO sent a message stating, “Pursuant to the state’s
public record act the logs are available to you and all other media and community members. There is nothing stated in the law that requires us to send them to you.”

Am I correct about the extent of my rights here and do I have any recourse aside from a lawsuit?

A:  As you probably know, although police investigatory files are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act, the Act does require police agencies to release “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, the time and date of the report, the name and age of the victim, the factual circumstances surrounding the crime or incident, and a general description of any injuries, property, or weapons involved” – i.e., essentially a daily crime log or police blotter.  Gov’t Code § 6254(f)(2). 

Although § 6254(f) does not specify the form in which this information should be released, or the timing, it would seem that given the tradition of police agencies compiling and making these logs available to reporters on a same-day basis, as well as case law and other provisions of the PRA that dictate that the Act is to be read in favor of disclosure, and disclosure should generally be prompt, there’s a good argument that the PD here may be violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the Act by not providing you with physical possession of the logs themselves during your visits to the police department. 

Further, the fact that you are not allowed to take notes on items listed in the logs is very troubling, and, depending on the specific circumstances, may have some First Amendment implications, given this is a restriction on your speech that does not seem necessary or justified. 

With respect to the emailing of the logs, I can see the logic in your argument that Gov’t Code § 6253.9(a)(1) would require the agency to email the records to you, given the log likely resides in electronic format on the PD’s computers.  That said, I could also see how the PD may argue that the logs themselves are not “identifiable public record[s]” subject to disclosure in electronic format under this particular provision, since the provision under § 6254(f)(2) that requires the disclosure of this information is actually an exception to the investigatory files exemption.

Per the wording under § 6254(f), the PD is to “make public the following information.”  In other words, the PD must release certain information about arrests and requests for assistance, as opposed to a particular record that is not exempt from disclosure, and therefore § 6253.9 may not apply.

Further, I don’t read § 6253.9 as requiring that records be delivered in a certain manner; rather, it only requires records be made available in the form they are kept.  So even if the PD agreed to give you the information in an electronic format, it could still require that you visit the department so you can pick up a thumb drive or CD containing the records.

It would seem that in any case, the police department would have an interest in making the log available to you in a manner that is the least disruptive to the operations of its department.  Having an officer read it to you or hold it to the window so you can review it (without taking notes, which means you’ll probably end up calling the department later for details on numerous specific incidents that you saw cited in the log) would seem to take away from other important officer duties.

Having been in a similar situation back in my reporting days, my recommendation would be that you and/or your news service send a friendly but strongly worded letter to the PIO, with a cc to the PIO’s supervisor (perhaps up to and including the chief himself) explaining the problem and suggesting a solution.

You might want to include in your letter descriptions of procedures used by other police departments around the Bay Area for the timely release of their logs.  You could also check with reporters who have covered PD in the past to see what procedures have historically been used by the department to release this information, and cite those procedures as well (assuming they provided timely access).

I would also suggest you request a meeting with the PIO to discuss the problem (and it’s probably a good idea to bring along one of your editors to the meeting).  If a letter and a meeting doesn’t work, you might consider getting your attorneys involved specifically to write an even stronger letter to the PD citing both legal and practical reasons that this information should be made available to you in a timely and appropriate manner.