I read with interest and some initial concern, Mariel Garza's column in the November 13, 2006, Daily News, "LA's an Armed Camp in Minds of its Police." But I could not let some of Ms. Garza's points go without a comment, particularly when my staff's review of her assertions addressed my initial concerns.
One would expect a journalist, or in this case journalism students, be prepared for and understand how to ask for information they are entitled to from law enforcement organizations. After much research and fact finding after the fact, it became clear; Garza's students were not prepared for this assignment.
For example, a management analyst who works in the Devonshire Area Crime Analysis Detail spent a great deal of time trying to help five of Garza's California State University Northridge students. 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. According to the analyst, the students insisted they be given crime information under the Freedom of Information Act.
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.
That's why the LAPD goes to great lengths to make that information available through its Public Information Office, Media Relations Section and LAPDOnline.org. In March, the Department re-launched its website with more information than ever before including weekly updates of citywide crime statistics and a new state of the art tool called LAPD Crime Maps. It allows users, including college journalism students, the ability to find out exactly what crimes are happening, when and where in the city. Reporters should be encouraged to utilize the resources already available to them. If it is crime blotter information they want, that information is routinely provided to local newspapers by the area police stations through their Crime Analysis Units. The LAPD's Records and Identification Division routinely provides a crime blotter service to news agencies.
When some of the students did reach out to the Department's Media Relations Section, they did not, as Ms. Garza claims, ask for crime blotter information. One student in particular wanted a copy of a watch commander's log, which is not the same as crime blotter information. When an officer asked her what day and what shift, the student didn't know. She was asked to be more specific and please send her request to Media Relations in an e-mail. She never did. Watch commander logs are not considered public records because they contain communications between the shift supervisor and that particular police station's captain. Since the logs may contain confidential information, like a victim's personal phone number, such documents are not de facto public information. I'm sure the public would expect the Department to protect confidential information and not release it to inquiring news reporters or journalism students.
The Department works with dozens of different reporters every day. Many have a misconception about the CPRA and how to use it to get information. In 95% of the requests, reporters don't need to invoke the CPRA; we're more than happy to help them get their information. But when they do invoke it, specific protocols are followed and the Department's Discovery Unit ultimately decides which CPRA request can be honored.
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. I offer the services of my staff to help Garza's students learn how to work with the Department to get the information they need, understand what information is already available to the public, and how to access it.
WILLIAM J. BRATTON
Chief of Police