On Tuesday, May 4, 2021 the Los Angeles Sunshine Coalition, represented by the incomparable Anna von Herrmann, filed a writ petition against the City of Los Angeles seeking to enforce compliance with the California Public Records Act. There are two basic issues at stake.
First, in June 2020 Coalition members submitted a request for a copy of the LAPD roster via the City’s NextRequest portal. This was a followup to a January 2019 request for the same thing, by the way. LAPD filled the 2019 request in precisely 14 days by producing this document.1
It took LAPD six weeks to produce this record in response to the 2020 request, and from it they redacted the geographical area assignment for every single officer on the list. They stated that the redactions were authorized:
…due to our belief that disclosure of this information to the public has the potential to endanger the operation of the Department and the safety of its officers and the public.2
There are, as you can imagine, a lot of problems with this position. Not least of these is the fact that, according to the Supreme Court of California, potential danger can’t authorize withholding. Another serious flaw in LAPD’s position is that they routinely release area information, including on their twitter accounts. As the petition has it:3
Respondent also regularly publishes the area assignments of individual officers—along with their names and photographs—to the public on social media. If releasing officer area assignments was truly as potentially dangerous as Respondent claims, it is unlikely that Respondent would voluntarily release that information so regularly to the public.
The other causes of action all have to do with requests from the LAPD Twitter Wonderer, a Twitter account run by Coalition members the intended purpose of which is to analyze official LAPD tweets using the CPRA. It worked at first, but very quickly LAPD stopped responding appropriately to requests.
In particular we were looking for the original JPGs of the pictures in LAPD’s tweets along with all information about the incidents the release of which is required by the CPRA at §6254(f). Except in one case LAPD refused to supply original JPG files, and in all cases they refused to release the names of the officers involved and the general circumstances of the arrest, both of which are mandatory releases per 6254(f).4
So that’s the story. I expect the City to make a settlement offer very quickly, and hand over the records at some not too incredibly distant point in the future. It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that this is how the City of Los Angeles handles most of its CPRA requests. They violate the law egregiously because without a lawsuit there are no consequences at all for doing so.
When a suit is filed, which happens very, very rarely compared to the number of requests received, they settle immediately except in a few very consequential cases. They take their time settling, which further delays access to the records. It’s possible for small agencies to learn their lesson after a lawsuit or two, but apparently it’s actually cheaper for the City to ignore the law and pay a couple hundred thousand a year in settlements than it would be to hire enough staff to actually comply with the law.
There’s no mechanism in the CPRA for requiring anyone to do anything other than handle the particular requests at issue. Their policies, procedures, future responses, what the lawyers call “prospective relief,” all this is off the table as long as the lawsuit proceeds solely under the CPRA. But there are other laws to use, riskier, more expensive, but apparently necessary. I hear from the Coalition that they’re working on developing appropriate capacities, so maybe we’ll hear something interesting soon!
- Although LAPD did eventually publish the request itself to the public they still have not, well over two years later, published the responsive record to the public even though they’re required to do this by the terms of a binding agreement with the ACLU which settled a 2017 CPRA suit.
- This is an invocation of the infamous §6255(a) “catch-all” clause exemption, which authorizes withholding of any record for which the public interest in releasing it is “clearly outweighed” by the public interest in keeping it secret.
- Here’s the context, with some light editing for clarity:
Respondent attempted to justify its withholding by stating that it believed disclosure of the area assignments “has the potential to endanger the operation of the Department and the safety of its officers and the public.” The California Supreme Court has explicitly rejected such vague safety concerns as a justification for withholding public records. “A mere assertion of possible endangerment does not ‘clearly outweigh’ the public interest in access to … records.” CBS, Inc. v. Block (1986) 42 Cal.3d 646, 652. While “a specific safety concern regarding a particular officer” may in certain circumstances justify nondisclosure of information related to that individual officer, “concerns [that are] general in nature” do not justify nondisclosure. Long Beach, 59 Cal.4th at 75. Respondent’s choice to keep secret the area assignments for all 9,952 people on the roster based only on the vague concern that release of that information “has the potential” for danger runs contrary to this clear precedent and violates the CPRA.
Moreover, Respondent’s assertion that the public interest in withholding area assignments “clearly outweighs” the public interest in disclosure rings hollow where Respondent released that information to the public in its entirety as recently as 2019. Respondent also regularly publishes the area assignments of individual officers—along with their names and photographs—to the public on social media. If releasing officer area assignments was truly as potentially dangerous as Respondent claims, it is unlikely that Respondent would voluntarily release that information so regularly to the public.
- They’re not just incompetent, by the way. In response to at least one of the requests they refused to produce anything other than a screenshot of the tweet, which is obviously not responsive in the least. It’s also in contradiction to their continual refusal to create new records in response to a request, which they are actually not required to do, but doing it to create obviously nonresponsive records is a paradigm shift even for LAPD. It’s obstinate passive aggressive defiance of the plain language of the law, and as such goes beyond LAPD’s typical unwillingness to comply with the CPRA or, for that matter, pretty much every other law meant to make them even minimally accountable to anyone other than themselves.