It’s been 10 days since Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back at close range by a member of Wisconsin’s Kenosha Police, but additional details have been slow to emerge from the local department.
Within 10 days of the shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia, news outlets had been able to access enough dispatcher audio and police body and dash camera footage to visually unravel the events of June 12. Georgia imposes a three-day response standard for public information requests. In the case of Blake in Wisconsin, however, a lack of an explicit response deadline in the state’s Open Records Act seems to be running interference for the official narrative.
In a Friday release by the Wisconsin State Senator Steve Nass, the Kenosha Professional Police Association (KPPA) delivered its description of the “actual and undisputed facts” of the event.
“The foregoing facts need to be added to the story to correct what is currently out there. As the uncontested facts above demonstrate, the officers involved gave Mr. Blake numerous opportunities to comply. He chose not to,” the unsigned KPPA statement read. “None of the officers involved wished for things to transpire the way it did. It is my hope that truth and transparency will help begin and aid in the healing process.”
Similarly to many other state records laws, the Wisconsin ORA also provides barriers to accessing information deemed part of an ongoing investigation. That investigation is being led by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which released a statement on its progress so far that reflected some of the same elements as the KPPA release. It also stated: “Kenosha Police Department does not have body cameras, therefore the officers were not wearing body cameras.”
Following the release of civilian-captured footage, there hasn’t been additional documentation released by the Kenosha P.D. Other recent police brutality captured by civilians’ cameras have been followed soon after by other official records: body or dash camera footage, 911 calls, incident reports.
The discrepancy is due in part to the Wisconsin Open Records Act, which is just one of 13 states where the public records law does not set an explicitly mandated deadline for agencies to acknowledge or respond to requests.
“The lack of a real time limit in the law actually is a significant problem. It says that records have to be turned over as soon as practicable and without delay. The lack of a firm timeline simply means that the custodians know that they really don’t have to make record requests a priority,” said Tom Kamenick, founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project. In the last few years, Kamenick has been able to settle litigation against agencies for taking unreasonably long to respond, but he notes that to settle and actually gets the records avoids setting legal precedent that agencies will need to abide in the future.
“Now, plenty of custodians do a great job and respond promptly. I’m sure for the most part, the rest of them aren’t thinking, ‘I’m going to delay this forever and I know I can,’” Kamenick said. “But as a practical matter, they know they’re not going to get sued over this until it gets really extreme. They know it could be quietly shunted down the priority list.”
More than a week ago, MuckRock users began to file requests with the Kenosha Police Department, looking to answer lingering questions about how the department is communicating about the events, how it should use force, and other details around the event. Reporters from The Washington Post have also experienced an uncertainty around when their requests for information will be answered.
Requests for comment to the Kenosha Police Department and Sen. Nass went unanswered as of publication.
“I would say that there is very little hope that the Republican-controlled legislature will take action to increase transparency with regard to police use of force situations,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely. I think it’s more possible that we would see progress in the courts because our courts have tended to recognize the presumption of openness in our records law as being pretty important and have affirmed it with some regularity.”
Wisconsin’s ORA lacks an administrative appeal option, leaving to take it up in court or lobby the local District Attorney or the state Attorney General to take up the case. According to Lueders, the last three AGs did not take up a single ORA case. The lawsuit is a pretty costly undertaking for someone just trying to get the facts out.
Image via Kenosha Police Department on Facebook