Columnist Mariel Garza's recent column about the LAPD prompted Chief William Bratton to reply on the department news and PR blog. Her column described the trouble Garza's Cal State Northridge journalism students encountered trying to get police report information out of LAPD divisions. She used their experiences to draw some larger points about the department. Excerpts:
Over the years I've encountered many thoughtful, helpful, courteous and decent Los Angeles police officers.
But I've also encountered incidents that point to a dark side of the Los Angeles Police Department, one of institutionalized obstructiveness and a collective disdain for the public it serves....
The students who chose to go to LAPD stations - which included Devonshire, Mission and West Los Angeles - had, every one, frustrating experiences. None was given access to the public record requested; some were even told they didn't have a right to it. Worse though, was that in most of the cases, my students reported unprovoked hostility by the desk officers to their simple, and righteous, requests....My students were genuinely shocked by the antagonistic treatment from the desk clerks at the LAPD stations, and they should be. If this is how unassuming college journalists armed with a copy of the California Public Records Act are treated with reasonable requests, imagine what a somewhat less-savvy citizen might experience.
There was a time, not too long ago, when citizens were not treated like criminals just for asking for information. I suspect this daily sort of contempt for the public - not to mention the regular helicopter patrols of some L.A. neighborhoods - has more to do with the public distrust of the LAPD than the occasional video of a rough arrest.
Bratton wasn't happy:
I could not let some of Ms. Garza's points go without a comment...After much research and fact finding after the fact, it became clear; Garza's students were not prepared for this assignment....
They asked for specific crime information under the "Freedom of Information Act," not the "California Public Records Act (CPRA)." There is a difference; the Freedom of Information Act pertains to requests for federal records, and the CPRA deals with requests for information from state and local agencies....Garza's column also did not explain that the CPRA requires that "access be immediate and allowed at all times." However, "staff need not disrupt operations to allow immediate access, but a decision whether to grant access must be prompt." One surely cannot expect a police division in the Valley that on average responds to over 700 calls for service in a week, handles over 300 crime and arrest reports in a week to drop everything when a student walks in and wants crime information and wants it now.
Ask any police-beat reporter how often they need to invoke CPRA to get information -- their answer will likely be, rarely. Being a good reporter means knowing what information one is entitled to, finding and relying on sources and contacts to get information, as well as learning how to utilize the Department's website for crime statistics. It also means having a clear understanding of the difference between the Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act. That's a lesson that hopefully Garza will teach her students.
Also: New crime stats are out. Robbery is still the only category up over last year. There have been 414 homicides in the city this year, down 4% from this time last year.