Ferguson Charges Thousands for Access to Public Records


The Telegraph

Ferguson, Missouri, isn't just shaking down its residents for cash. The Associated Press reports that, in an attempt to stymie investigations, the city has also been charging journalists exorbitant fees for access to public records:

Bureaucrats in Ferguson, Missouri, responding to requests…to turn over government files about the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, are charging nearly 10 times the cost of some of their own employees' salaries before they will agree to release any records.

Under Missouri open records law, government records can be released for free—provided the government has "determined the material was in the public's interest to see." Otherwise, a "reasonable" fee can be levied.

The ever-nebulous public interest is in the eye of the bureaucratic beholder, however. The AP asked for a fee waiver for its records request of the Brown shooting and the aftermath, citing the public's interest. The city politely declined and demanded a fee for its services:

Ferguson told the AP it wanted nearly $2,000 to pay a consulting firm for up to 16 hours of work to retrieve messages on its own email system.

Definitions of "public interest" aside, that's a lot of money for a little copying and pasting.

The AP is not the only news organization slapped with what the city has deemed to be "reasonable" fees:

Organizations like the website Buzzfeed were told they'd have to pay unspecified thousands of dollars for emails and memos about Ferguson's traffic-citation policies and changes to local elections. The Washington Post said Ferguson wanted no less than $200 for its requests.

As the AP notes, jacking up costs is a favorite government tactic to discourage inquisitive journalists—while allowing the government to maintain a superficial commitment to transparency.

But reticent government gatekeepers are not the only offenders of raising the costs of compliance: Regulators and busybodies of all stripes routinely hike charges in order to curb undesirable activities without going the unpopular or illegal route of prohibiting these activities outright.


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  1. At least the emails didn’t ‘get lost’, right?

  2. As incompetent as local governments are (in general), I don’t doubt that Ferguson might need $2000 of help from a temp staffing firm to provide that information. At all. Srsly.

    So – whatever. Looters gonna loot – especially the kind with legal immunity.

    But they’re not immune from pitchforks, tar and feathers, and torches. Their temporary hell of close scrutiny will pass soon enough, and they can go back to their still-miserable lives, albeit a little less miserable absent the world all up in their bidness 24/7.

    1. Depending on what email archival systems they have in place, $2k is not very much money at all to search for a load of emails regarding a specific topic. Retrieving all of the emails sent from Sgt. Smith to Lt. Davis during September is a pretty easy request that would take a few minutes. Finding “any and all emails related to traffic policy” – that would be pretty tough. Even with a first class email archive system you’d have to come up with search terms to ensure that you fully comply. Then you have to vet everything you get back by hand. It could definitely take quite a bit of time.

      My staff often had to comply with discovery requests for big lawsuits. Very few took less than 40 hours of senior administrator time. That is one reason we moved to a document archiving solution that provided special tools for the legal department to conduct their own discovery.

  3. Price-gouging for government files

    Oh c’mon. There’s a tip-off to the author’s bias. Look, the fees may be high. But as to how unreasonable they are…that’s more complicated. Because their regular staff may not be trained to deal with such requests, particularly in volume. And there are legal ramifications to satisfying the requests improperly.

    I’m calling BS on those who think it’s as simple as the AP reporter things it is. To do it right is no cheap.

    1. Or it’s a tip-off to the author having made similar requests of other public offices in the past that were handled right without a four-digit bill.

      1. I have made many myself and let me state with no equivocation that I’ve never heard of a bill anywhere near that high

        I’m trying to remember the last request I made that cost me more than five dollars and I cant

        1. Requesting a copy of an arrest report or the results of an investigation should be simple and free. All they have to do is pull the file and make a copy. But some of these requests are not simple at all.

          Did you ever request “all email or memoranda related to X policy?” That is a pretty broad topic. How would you even search for that? Do you think you could provide a cleaned-up list of every email in the department relating to use of force training? How many hours would that take? Any chance at all of doing a decent job of it in less than a half-day? Are you going to let a pile of internal emails get released without running them by someone in the Legal department? Not if you are competent. How long will it take an attorney to review 300 emails?

          1. I’ve done some pretty broad email requests and I’ve also been queried when somebody else is making an email request

            Agencies can do various text searches of email which help in requests like that like searching for certain keywords

            They also poll employees for example I’ve had emails from our legal department sent dept wide asking me if I wrote any emails in regards to (insert issue here) and if so to forward them to our legal department.

            So yeah there are certainly different type of requests that are going to justify either more time or more money

            I am just saying I’ve had plenty of friends who have sued police departments I’ve done plenty of requests myself and I’ve spoken to plenty of defense attorneys about the requests they’ve made and I’ve never heard of anything remotely like a $2000 fee

            Heck many agencies have a form right on their website so any Tom Dick or Harry can easily fill it out without any legal knowledge

            I strongly suggest that if you think a public disclosure request could provide some information that you want to go ahead and do it

            1. Of course the city is also likely getting inundated with media requests and had to take on staffing to help out with the increased volume, so I could see a bill being a lot higher than normal (even if $2000 seems rather high).

              I don’t envy the records personnel who have to suddenly deal with a much higher level of specially tailored records requests…for a town that size, it’s likely quite overwhelming for their normal staff.

              In this circumstance, I’m going to assume that it’s less likely malice than apocalyptic backlog.

              1. Yeah the more you think about it the more I can agree with you that it is an exceptional case since those fax are things that have never been present in any of the cases I am talking about

                So I will give you props and some good points there I didn’t think about it first

                Again 2000 dollars is probably excessive but yea they are probably proper fucked with the amount of requests they are having to deal with


              2. Of course the “inundated by requests” was partly created by their own intransigence. They hired a private “city attorney” who stonewalled even the most trivial requests. Over at PhotographyIsNotACrime they have been part of a campaign to expose the city’s noncompliance with state disclosure laws. Their excuses do sound pretty silly.

  4. I don’t know how anybody could think these guys might be untrustworthy.

    1. Neither do I. Everyone knows that the innocent have nothing to hide.

  5. Sounds lame

    I have a buddy in my department who has sued the chief twice and successfully I might note and is very good at public records requests including those for email

    In our department and every other that I can see it’s always very very cheap to get email disclosures

    Despite the fact that you would think they would know better copocrats tend to arrogantly incriminate themselves especially when it comes to unjustified persecution of police officer

    No police officer has any right to privacy in emails using the departments email system

    As I have said I’ve been gone for sometime and partly because I was dealing with seeking redress for grievances and I can state unequivocally that if you want to get redress from bad government actors getting disclosure of emails can be very helpful

    Emails are just like body cameras they offer a very nice mostly objective way to help clear good officers and help punish bad ones

  6. Almanian, I can’t speak for Ferguson but I can state from general experience with police departments that any Police Department worth it’s salt (which may exclude Ferguson) should already have it set up so there is a efficient and easy way to provide email disclosure to the public which has an absolute right to that type of disclosure

    I have made such disclosure requests myself many many times and I have always gotten corporation such that response was both quick and inexpensive if not free

    For example in my experience getting a couple hundred emails cost less than five dollars

    There may be something beyond my understanding here that would justify such an exorbitant cost but part of the duty of government because open government is essential in our country is that they already have it set up such that they can provide the public access to their records

    1. I am really surprised at that. We never let a bunch of emails loose without reviewing them first – but then we are a private company

      1. A private company has all sorts of protections that in most cases they can tell somebody asking for emails to pound sand

        Somebody who is suing them like if his client was an employee claiming sexual-harassment on the other hand can certainly make certain kinds of requests and it’s gonna be a matter of duelling lawyers to find out what is necessary to be released

        The distinction is in a government agency like a Police Department the default assumption is that if it is in a department email it is a document to be publicly disclosed upon request

  7. Fwiw, many agencies now issue smartphones and as a rule of thumb text messages sent via government supplied smartphones are just as open disclosure as emails

    This is a potentially very fruitful venue for those seeking redress for bad government action against them

    I have personally made email requests many times but never text message requests however this is an area that I think is ripe for exploration

    Recall the MDT ‘gorillas in the mist’ etc messages that helped to expose some LAPD officers as well

    In my agency every single car to car message sent via our MDT is archived on the software company’s servers for ever

    This is another excellent venue for public disclosure

    1. Do you honestly think anyone is going to read your 3 pages of navel-gazing?

      1. Truth has a dignity all its own

        If it takes me at most a minute or two to dictate it it should take less than that to read it

        My agency even allows us to blog and post on the Internet on duty!


      2. Another point is that as in other issues I tend to post on I have actual personal experience and knowledge in the issues I discuss whether they be police use of force or police accountability and email disclosures and the average reason ignorant bigot has no experience whatsoever nor any intellectual understanding of the important issues

        It’s a service I provide hope that helps

        1. The day the last police union is broken and “qualified immunity” is as dead as Kelly Thomas is the day I will give a shit about your “personal experiences” and “knowledge in the issues”.

          1. I of course expect a lack of respect for due process civil rights etc from an anti police bigot

            Fortunately the American public loves and respects us and there is absolutely no indication whatsoever that the protections we enjoy from false complaints malicious prosecution etc will remain

            Our system is imperfect and just as garden variety suspects enjoy protections so do police suspects

            Due to the nature of our job we are naturally placed in positions where unlike the average personwe will be especially prone to be slings and arrows of malicious process etc

            Thank god so many of us now have the protections of body cameras and thank God we have strong unions strong attorneys etc so that we can be assured of it on the whole officers who do the wrong thing get punished and officers who do the right thing get protected

            I recently enjoyed some redress due to bad process committed against myself and many officers can stay the same

            1. A justice denied to one is justice denied all and we will continue to fight for justice for everybody

              Due to our position we have a greater vulnerability the false complaints etc which is why I’m not worried about having a body camera on when I walk around off duty but I am doing everything possible to try and get myself permission to have one On duty

              Heck I almost never carry a firearm off duty even though there is a incredibly remote chance I might need it

              1. You and your stormtrooper buddies have been denying justice to anyone without a badge for decades. Due process? Don’t make me laugh.

                1. Utter rubbish and as again fortunately the majority of the public thinks you’re full of poop to

                  Rights denied to one is rights denied to all and everybody even the most lowly deserve full protection of the law and due process

                  The reasonbigot(tm) loses interest in civil rights due process objective consideration of evidence rule of law process analysis freedom from coercion privacy protection fair punishment redemption etc. when it comes to cops

  8. In Louisiana by law public records are accessed for free. If you want copies you pay a buck per page. If you are denied access to public record the person denying you and their agency are fined 100 dollars/ day each until they release the records.

    Some years ago a buddy of mine sued successfully under this law.

    1. A buck per page is actually pretty expensive these days and is much more than what I’ve paid

      A dime to $.20 is much more common

      Regardless modern technology makes it a lot quicker and a lot cheaper

      The last disclosure request that I filed I received all the documents on disk and the entire thing cost me a couple of bucks

      We are talking hundreds of pages

      On the other hand the accountability built into that law the ability to sue etc are very good things

      The biggest obstacle one will generally run into when doing a disclosure request is that they will refuse to provide documents when the case is still under investigation

      And that is generally justified but sometimes they will abuse that concept in my experience

  9. I dont hink Jorde is going to like that.

  10. Not unrelated to this thread?

    Should you have video/audio/photos of a police “incident” of any kind, it is wise to NOT reveal its existence right away.

    A new tactic by LEOs is to NOT write reports immediately: To wait as long as possible. That way, if anything surfaces, they can write the report to fit what was recorded.

    This is also why they have an almost sexual fetish to confiscate anyone’s recording device as “evidence”.

    Let them write their report first, THEN see if it fits what was recorded.

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