Among the most important accountability measures contained in the federal consent decree for the New Orleans Police Department is a requirement that most patrol cars be outfitted with cameras. Police reform advocates hoped that cameras would assist in internal investigations and make officers less likely to mistreat civilians. But when they were first introduced, questions remained. How could cameras be used in investigations? How could they not be used? Could officers turn them off? How long would the police department retain footage?
Many of those questions eventually were answered when the department published the policy online.
But that had not yet happened by mid-2013, so The Lens formally asked the city for all public records related to dashboard cameras, including contracts, records of budgetary allocations for installation and all written policies.
The Lens was still waiting for the records more than a year after sending the request. In September 2014, projects editor Steve Myers complained about the long delay in an email to the City Attorney’s Office, the Police Department and the Mayor’s Office. On Oct. 15, almost 16 months from the date of the request, the records were provided.
But according to an official City Attorney’s Office log of public-records requests, obtained through discovery in The Lens’ public records lawsuit against the city, the request was satisfied in just a few weeks. That was because it incorrectly lists the date of the initial request as Sept. 24, 2014, the day after Myers’ follow-up email.
That is just one of a number of mistakes in the log, which cover public-records requests submitted from January 2014 through August 2015. After reviewing nearly 2,000 requests, The Lens confirmed a number of inaccuracies, such as how long it took the city to provide requested records, and whether requests were even fulfilled at all. The inaccuracies render the documents highly questionable, making it impossible to measure the city’s compliance with the state Public Records Law, which demands that government records not in use be made available immediately; those in use should produced within three business days of a request.*
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office did not respond to repeated requests for corrected records or an explanation for the errors. Asked about the problems with the log, Landrieu’s spokeswoman Sarah McLaughlin emailed a brief boilerplate statement that didn’t address The Lens’ concerns.
“The City follows the law. We have opened up unprecedented amounts of information to the public including contracts, crime statistics and more. Frequently requested data sets are posted to data.nola.gov,” she wrote.
The city’s apparent failure to keep accurate records makes it impossible to determine whether or how often the city is following the Public Records Law, and it calls into question the city’s claims made to Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese in response to the public records lawsuit.
Lawyers with the City Attorney’s Office have repeatedly said, in court filings and in arguments before Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, that the city averages about 12 days to hand over public records.
“Considering the nature of public records in the 21st Century, this is perfectly reasonable, even admirable,” one court filing says.
If that number came from the city’s public records request log, it’s not the same one the city gave to The Lens, which shows a 20-day average. But it’s not at all clear that number is right given the errors it contains.
We were able to identify more problems related to our own requests, including at least two that were marked “satisfied” when they were partly denied.
Another anomaly concerns an item at the center of The Lens’ lawsuit: a denied request for a copy of the city’s contracting and purchasing database. It appears twice in the log, in one instance incorrectly marked as “satisfied.” A very similar 2014 request from an employee of SmartProcure, an online government transparency tool, is said in the log to have been “satisfied” in just three days. But a copy of a letter from the city, obtained through a public records request, shows that SmartProcure’s records were denied.
But because city officials did not answer any questions, The Lens has been unable to confirm a serious potential error — one affecting dozens of entries in the log.
According to the log, the city took nearly a year to provide Karla Cormier with recordings of two 911 calls.
Cormier’s was among a suspicious number of requests in which the log said the city sent letters informing members of the public that their records were ready for review on Dec. 31, 2014. According to the log, the City Attorney’s Office sent out 68 notification letters that New Year’s Eve.
But in a phone interview, Cormier said the real response time was much shorter.
“I think that record is incorrect because I know they got it back to me within the month,” she said, adding that she would have remembered if it took much longer because the records were “needed for a quick turnaround.”
*Correction: The original story said the law gives government officials three days to respond. In fact, if records aren’t in use they are to be provided immediately.