Phrasing let attorney close file on Chronicle open-records request
Over the summer, the editor of the Cambridge Chronicle asked for city police log information, including some crime addresses, and was told an outrageous thing:
Gathering and providing certain police log information would take about 25 hours and cost $1,215, according to attorney Kelley A. Downes, who works for the Cambridge Police Department.
After being told this in an Aug. 10 e-mail, the editor, David Harris, appealed Downes’ decision to the state and was told another outrageous thing:
The expense Downes described was needed because “the department does not maintain the addresses to which police respond in one centralized list,” meaning “search time” was needed to gather them, according to Rebecca Murray, an attorney with the Public Records Division of the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
Murray wrote this in an Oct. 6 letter signed by the supervisor of records, Alan N. Cote, that served as a rejection of Harris’ appeal. In it, she cited a letter from Downes to her office dated Sept. 22, and she confirmed this week in a telephone interview that in researching her decision, “I spoke to attorney Downes about it.”
These things are outrageous because they are wrong — unless, apparently, you are a lawyer.
There are two important things going on here:
First, according to Murray, the request made by Harris was expensive because he specifically asked for
… access to and copies of the police log between July 1 and July 27, containing information including the names of all people arrested within the city of Cambridge, ages of all people arrested and addresses of all people arrested. In addition, I request access to all addresses, including street name and number, that police are dispatched to. [emphasis added]
And, in fact, such access to the “police log” would be quite a task if you assume — as Murray did, as Downes may have and with the sometimes maddening specificity the law allows — that Harris was seeking access to and information from paper documents. Downes and Murray also say the law allows police to deny access to the addresses Harris asked for. “The concern of the police department was that addresses would tip off the location and identity of victims and witnesses,” Murray said.
Downes did not respond to two messages left with her over the course of the week.
The second important thing: Since Murray says in her Oct. 6 letter that “Downes stated that the department does not maintain the addresses to which police respond in one centralized list,” Downes either misled Murray as she crafted her decision of Harris’ appeal; or is ignorant of the work done by the department she serves. (There are again two things to consider: Murray could have misunderstood what Downes was trying to tell her in their conversations and in her Sept. 22 letter to the secretary’s office.)
The inaccuracy of what Downes says about there being no “centralized list” became clear during a Nov. 5 interview with spokeswoman Alexa Manocchio and Deputy Superintendent Steven Williams about community policing; police staffing levels in Central Square; and what some police departments call compstat — for “computer statistics” — and the Cambridge equivalent called, according to Williams, “intelligence-led policing.”
Williams described a system in which information is rapidly added to a database and almost instantly analyzed for patterns “geographic and temporal.”
“We utilize these abilities to deploy our people,” he said. “We might not have the same presence this night [in the same place] as last night. The goal is to mitigate crime from happening as it occurs. Our role is not to catch people, but to prevent crime from occurring.”
This overnight or nearly immediate redeployment is made possible by noting when and where crime takes place, and those addresses and times are stored in computers that can break down the information in a variety of ways. As in spreadsheet programs such as Microsoft Excel found in virtually every office and many homes, on desktop or laptop computers, there is an almost endless number of ways input data can be almost instantaneously searched, organized and printed. “Redacted reports take a little while,” Williams said, but he did not indicate redaction would take the many hours mentioned by the attorneys. In the case of addresses, redaction could be as simple as a click of a mouse button before printing to deselect the column in which addresses are listed.
Examples of how the police database’s centralized list of addresses is used can be found in the quarterly crime reports available as PDFs on the Web site of the Cambridge Police. In the third-quarter report linked to here, Pages 11-18 give numbers for a multitude of kinds of crime committed in every Cambridge neighborhood and business district dating back to January 2005.
In contrast to what Williams described, here is what Murray wrote of this process:
A custodian may charge a fee if complying with a request requires “search time” … (defining “search time” as the time needed to locate, pull from the file, copy, and re-file a non-computerized public record).
And here is how Downes describes the process of gathering Harris’ “police log” information when there is “no centralized database” or, as Murray paraphrases above, a “computerized public record”:
Your request will require the collection and examination of approximately 500 police reports and other documentation. The Police Department has estimated that it would take the lowest paid employee capable of collecting, copying, reviewing, and re-filing the requested documents approximately 25 hours to do so. At this employee’s hourly rate of $40.00, the maximum total cost would be $1000.00. An estimated 1075 pages of documents would be copied. At the rate of $.20 per page, a total of $215.00 would be due. The Police Department’s total estimate is therefore $1215.00.
“Attorney Downes never mentioned this database, and I don’t believe it came up, because the request was for the police logs. Maybe if you made a request for a different series of records, the estimate would have been different,” Murray said Thursday.
“When he made an appeal to this office, he never changed the wording,” she said of Harris. “He never came back and said, ‘Oh no no, I don’t want the police logs, I want this database.’”
Reached after deadline Wednesday, Harris said he was tired and didn’t remember the details of the case. He was invited to gather and share more information about the case.
Murray’s Oct. 6 decision says “the fee charged should not serve as a deterrent for the requestor to access public records,” and she affirmed Thursday that she felt “This wasn’t so much about the fee estimate — he wanted the addresses. I don’t think Mr. Harris was going to pay any amount of money to get a redacted version of a police log that was equal to what he could have gotten off the Web site.”
But when the Chronicle published Downes’ letter of Aug. 10 on its own Web site, the headline was “E-mail: Cambridge Police Dept. wants $1,200 for detailed police log,” and a follow-up article bore the headline “Cambridge Police Department wants to charge $1,200 for detailed public police log.” It bore this lead:
Cambridge Police will tell you some details about the city’s 911 calls for shots fired, stabbings and car breaks, but if you want to know where those crimes actually happened, you’ll have to pay the Cambridge Police Department $1,215.
And when local media analyst Dan Kennedy wrote of the issue on his blog, his headlines also reflected the cost: “The high cost of Cambridge police records” appeared on dankennedy.com Aug. 14, followed by “Bring lots of quarters” the next day. The Harvard Crimson, as well, noted the expense as cause for appeal in an Oct. 14 article despite the headline “Massachusetts Rejects Appeal For More Police Info.”
Certainly less than a month’s worth of data printed as a tidy list from a computer database would be cheaper than the 1,075 pages cited as necessary when Downes asserted there was no centralized database — even though computer printouts are charged at 50 cents per pages, according to Murray, instead of at the 20 cents per copied page used in Downes’ calculations.
Murray noted her office’s limited investigative abilities, despite pleas to the legislature to grant them, and noted that “There are court cases which we must abide by that say there is a presumption that public officials are honest and impartial.”
“So when we have a records custodian make assertions to us and then even put those assertions in writing, as attorney Downes did by saying there is no centralized place where those records are stored, we kind of have to take it at face value unless something comes before us that rebuts that presumption — which, in that case, nothing did,” she said. “No one came forward. Mr. Harris didn’t come forward … We must take [officials] at what they say, unless we have overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
“I would not appreciate if this office was misled or if they were being untruthful — which I don’t believe was the case,” Murray said of records custodians or other officials. “But if there is such a centralized database and they put in writing that there is no centralized list, that could be concerning.”
“Still, bottom line,” she said, “I’m not sure what the difference would be.”