‘It’s really kind of astounding’: APD’s price tag on public records
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage Police Department is estimating it will cost thousands of dollars to release public information and records that correspond to an arrest its communications team wrote about in a Facebook post in February.
The response from APD’s records department comes after Alaska’s News Source sought to verify the truthfulness of stories APD presented to the public as fact in a long-running but now retired social media campaign APD called “What Not To Do Wednesday.”
In the same month, APD defended the series as a light-hearted take on what officers deal with, apologized for a post that ‘missed the mark,’ and then discontinued the series all together.
Fact or fiction?
A “What Not To Do Wednesday” post dated Feb. 3 sparked community concerns and criticism and prompted questions from the Alaska’s News Source investigative team.
The post described officers responding to a physical fight between a man and a woman in a parking lot, dubbing them “lovebirds,” referring to the man as “Mr. Lovebird” and the woman as “his sweetie,” and describing apparent use of force by officers as ending up “in one big pile on the ground.”
The story ends with the arrest of “Mr. LB” who, according to APD, ended up facing five criminal charges.
APD has said the “What Not To Do Wednesday” posts are curated by its Community Relations Unit, but has refused to identify the employee who was paid to write and produce the posts for more than three years.
In an emailed statement from APD on Feb. 3, APD Community Relations Specialist Cherie Zajdzinski-Shirey wrote, “These stories are based on real events over the span of several years. We also may use a combination of different events and stories at our own discretion.”
Then, three weeks after admitting in the written statement that stories in its “What Not To Do Wednesday” campaign might actually be combinations of events and incidents spliced together to create new scenarios, APD released a message to the community claiming the narratives were real.
“The events, the situations, and the circumstances we told were real. It did happen,” APD wrote on Feb. 24.
A $6,400 price tag
It is a matter of public record when individuals are arrested and charged with crimes, according to John McKay, an attorney with decades of experience practicing media law in Alaska.
“They may have very good reasons for taking somebody off the street, presumably they would, but they don’t get to do it in secret,” said McKay. “You know, we don’t have the people who are disappeared here, right? I mean, it sounds melodramatic but in fact, it’s a basic tenet of government that the government’s accountable, and if the government exercises authority to arrest somebody and maybe take them off the street, take them to a jail or someplace, the public has a right to know about that.”
In February, APD’s Community Relations Unit would not provide a case number or the name of the man arrested so that the narrative they presented could be fact checked or verified. Instead, they suggested Alaska’s News Source file a public records request.
On Feb. 9, Alaska’s News Source filed a records request seeking the APD case number and other public information associated with the incident described in its Feb. 3 “What Not To Do Wednesday” post.
About eight weeks later, on April 8, APD’s records department responded to the request with a notice that it would cost an estimated $6,400 or more to fulfill the records request.
On April 9, Alaska’s News Source reached out to APD’s Community Relations Unit asking why it will potentially cost thousands of dollars to receive a case number and other related public information for an incident that the communications team is purportedly familiar with and wrote about, and seeking an interview about APD’s process for responding to and fulfilling public records requests.
In an emailed response on Monday, APD Director of Community Relations MJ Thim deferred questions back to the records department, writing, “... my team doesn’t have any additional information at this time and respectfully decline the interview opportunity. You will need to wait until our Records Department responds and continue to work with them directly. Once the process is complete, please reach out to my team if you have any additional questions. We’d be happy to help at that time.”
A requirement to be ‘reasonable’
Both the delay in response to a public records request and APD’s cost estimate are troubling, said McKay.
“Either it’s a window into a system that’s really not working well and there are abuses there, or I guess the only other explanation would be that it’s sort of a, maybe a punitive response to some story that they found was embarrassing, and that’s probably equally troubling,” said McKay, responding to APD’s cost estimate of $6,400. “If it’s a one shot thing because they don’t like what you did, that’s not a good excuse for causing that kind of concern. It’s really kind of astounding.”
APD’s public records request form asks citizens to include case numbers, dates, names and other identifying information to expedite the process of locating records; however, APD’s Community Relations Unit removed identifying information from the narrative before including it in the “What Not To Do Wednesday” series and would not provide it to Alaska’s News Source for the purpose of making a targeted records request.
Monday, the records department provided an invoice for 160 hours of research time at the rate of $40 per hour and wrote, “Specific information included in a police report was purposely not included in WNTDW posts as to not embarrass the defendant, those involved and/or not interfere with the prosecution/adjudication of an investigation. As such, the information you provided in your records request is limited and requires research.”
“Either it’s a tremendous waste of taxpayer resources and valuable police time, or somebody is giving you a hard time and figuring out a way that they can intimidate you,” said McKay. “When you make a request for a record that’s going to take 10 to 15 minutes to walk across the hall and find the number, to tell you it’s going to cost $6,400 is kind of a sad thing.”
McKay said the law does not require that agencies produce records that do not exist, but that the law does require them to answer requests reasonably.
“They’re required to answer your records requests in a reasonable fashion and I think it’s not reasonable to spend 100 hours avoiding asking the person they know has the information,” said McKay.
Alaska’s News Source has requested that the two units within APD communicate to fulfill the records request.
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