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Op-Ed: Dear LAPD: You are not exempt from the Public Records Act

No other city agency has a greater impact on lives and communities in Los Angeles than the LAPD. For this reason, access to no other agency’s public records is as important. Consider the San Pedro mother who wants to understand why her son is in a county jail, the Van Nuys community group concerned about racial profiling in arrests, the UCLA professor studying incarceration statistics in South versus West L.A., or this newspaper’s attempt to report accurately on a fatal police shooting. In all of these situations, confidence in police action depends on police transparency.

California’s Public Records Act guarantees public access — within 10 days for valid requests — to the written and electronic files of all public agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department. And yet, if the stories told in a lawsuit filed last month by the ACLU are accurate, the LAPD flouts this requirement. According to the lawsuit, the department has disregarded citizen requests for public records concerning a fatal shooting, racial disparities in traffic stops and incarceration, and facial recognition software. In some cases, requests were ignored for years.

One of the plaintiffs in the ACLU case is Kelly Hernandez, an associate professor in UCLA’s history department. She heads a research project, Million Dollar Hoods, which identifies neighborhoods where the LAPD spends the most on jailing local residents. All it takes to understand how the LAPD views its responsibility to the public is this email Hernandez received in November from the agency’s Advanced Development and Support Division about her pending request for departmental records: “Unfortunately, ADSD is down to one employee; that last employee is also leaving in a few weeks. New staff is being trained; however, all pending requests have been affected/delayed.”

Accountability without transparency is hollow.

What this response sidesteps is that the LAPD has nearly 3,000 civilian employees. Someone apparently decided that none of them should be charged with clearing the backlog of records requests. How an institution staffs a legal obligation is a loud statement about its respect for that obligation. It is an old truism that justice delayed is justice denied; so, too, disclosure delayed is disclosure denied. Eight months later, Hernandez is still waiting. Because many of her requests have gone unanswered for a year or more, she told me by phone, she’s “discouraged, intimidated and worn down” by the police department’s “stall tactics.”

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The lawsuit identifies several instances when the LAPD never even acknowledged receiving requests. The lawsuit also itemized requests that, while logged, went unfulfilled for up to three years. Though the ACLU is not known for its antic sense of humor, one basis for its lawsuit is its own request, made in November, for the LAPD’s records on how it responds to public records requests. Very meta, but as of the lawsuit’s filing, the LAPD’s response to the ACLU’s request was already six months late.

This pattern of delay appears to be the result of open institutional bias. The LAPD’s website has a brief section on public record requests. Readers are told not to rely on the “10-day period mentioned in the [Public Records] act,” because, the website says, it “is not a legal deadline for producing records.”

Actually, California Government Code section 6253(c) requires the LAPD to determine whether a request is valid within 10 days, absent “unusual circumstances.” Even then, the law requires a final determination in another two weeks. Exceptions are necessary, of course — in instances where information may endanger a witness, for example. But the LAPD website dwells most on the types of records that you can’t get. The not-so-subliminal message: Don’t bother.

We grant our police extraordinary powers, even to use deadly force with only a heartbeat’s deliberation. Those who exercise such powers owe us, under moral justice and by law, strict accountability. But accountability without transparency is hollow. This reality is what prompted California’s adoption of the Public Records Act 50 years ago.

Before publicly judging the agency, I wanted to hear the LAPD’s response to the ACLU’s lawsuit. First, I called its media office. “The department does not comment on pending litigation,” I was told. They referred me to the city attorney’s office, since it will represent the LAPD. Fair enough. But when I called the city attorney’s media office, no one answered. I left a detailed voicemail. Weeks later, I am still waiting for a callback. I might as well have asked the LAPD for public records.

Alan Rader is a lawyer in Los Angeles. Previously a litigation partner at O’Melveny & Myers, in 1994 he co-counseled with the ACLU in the lawsuit that invalidated the anti-immigrant Proposition 187.

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