Part One: Barriers to access

Part One: Barriers to access

High price tags and records exemptions remain consistent barriers to access.

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

Financial barriers and commonly cited exemptions continue to deter requesters from delving into the public records world. Earlier this year we took a look at our MuckRock data, which shows our users are highly interested in police records, and despite a myriad of challenges, we’ve still seen a steady growth in the number of these requests over the years.

Last year, we reported on the costliest public records fee we’d seen on MuckRock. Through our numbers, we found that the majority of requests had a price tag attached to them. While some were for just a dollar or two in copying costs, some ranged from hundreds, to even thousands of dollars. Each state has their own way of estimating fees, which can differ depending on how many records the request will generate and the labor to produce those documents. In Massachusetts, our our data showed fees of up to $300,000.

In Oregon, the Portland Police Bureau continues its now infamous practice of asking for a $30 prepayment fee. Although it’s not clear within Oregon law if agencies are actually allowed to charge a prepayment fee, the law is vague enough to give agencies extra wiggle room to do so, and public records lawsuits are costly and prohibitive.

Not all changes to fee policies are negative, however. Most recently, the state of Wyoming began to roll out its new fee policies, which allow agencies to charge fees for completing records requests, including electronic requests, but only if the request cost the state $180 or more to fulfill. In this case, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality charged over $400 for a request for emails that fell well under the state’s new threshold for charging records. When challenged, the agency ran the numbers again and found the request would actually be free for the requester, considering the new $180 threshold.

While steep fees have often served as one way hostile agencies can prevent requesters from getting records, broad application of exemptions remain the most daunting barrier to disclosure.

For example, Oregon’s prepayment requirement is just one of the challenges requesters have noted in getting access to police records. Privacy exemptions and open investigations have led requesters to dead ends in uncovering information into police business. However, in California, recent legislation has led to some success in accessing internal police misconduct records. But despite this new legislation to uncover these records, Golden State requesters have been met with harsh resistance from police unions and other legislators, who oppose the actual implementation of the strengthed law. In Hawaii, a similar bill was being considered but has since been written off due to its complexity, and strong divide on the matter. Similarly, new voter-approved Marsy’s Law in Florida has made the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office change its policy, tightening its release of crime data.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our requesters continue to point to Massachusetts law enforcement agencies as top culprits in denying access to records. The 2016 reform to public records law paved the way for greater access to information, but special carve outs in the law have kept a majority of police records locked. The Investigatory Exemption (f) has been one of the most commonly cited exemptions blocking access to standard records such as photos of identified officers and detectives. Although law, requesters continue to see these overly broad exemptions cited as means to withhold these records.

With 50+ state public records laws across the nation, agencies continue to take advantage of grey areas within records law to charge prepayment fees and even higher fees. State exemptions continue to serve as broad blanket exemptions to limit access to police records and fail to provide transparency into law enforcement agencies. Despite some state legislatures efforts to pass new laws to remedy the issue, stern opposition continues to frustrate actual accountability.


Part Two: Legislative reform

Part Three: Transparency advocates

Part Four: Public interest


Image via Joint Base San Antonio