Getting Your Police Records
Posted on behalf of RizkLaw on May 27, 2021 in Legal News
Mayor Ted Wheeler announced Friday that Portland will no longer charge crime victims for copies of their own police reports after an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive found people face high fees and long waits to get them.
Wheeler’s announcement came minutes before a scheduled interview with an Oregonian reporter, who had told the mayor’s staff he would inquire about the city’s response to the investigation. It also came after most city commissioners had told The Oregonian/OregonLive that crime victims should not pay for their documents and recommended additional changes.
In the interview Friday, Wheeler said he was “surprised” that his Police Bureau did not already have a plan in place to eliminate fees for crime victims and credited the newspaper with spurring the change.
“When I heard you were going to ask me about that I was a little surprised we didn’t already have a plan in place to execute on that,” Wheeler said.
Eileen Park, the mayor’s communications director, said aides had been “working on it” but without the mayor’s knowledge.
Wheeler also said he will enact other changes to keep him in the loop when some records are withheld from journalists.
The Oregonian/OregonLive’s October investigation found people seeking Portland police reports must pay at least $30 up front and face long delays, even if they are seeking the report as a victim. In 2017, the average wait for a police report was 133 days. In contrast, Seattle is able to turn around most reports in under a week. It charges about $1 per report and doesn’t charge victims.
Though Wheeler’s announcement means crime victims will be able to receive police reports free of charge, it doesn’t guarantee they will get them quickly. Several crime victims The Oregonian spoke to for its investigation said the long delays harmed their abilities to move forward with their lives.
It’s unclear how or whether the Police Bureau will tackle its deep backlog of requests that results in weeks or months of delay — a central shortcoming revealed by The Oregonian/OregonLive’s investigation into police records policies.
Park said the mayor’s office is preparing a budget proposal for next year that would add money to the bureau’s records unit and seek efficiencies. Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz had already told The Oregonian they’d support hiring more records employees to shorten the backlog.
In preparing to follow up on its investigation, The Oregonian asked each of Portland’s city commissioners for their thoughts. All but Commissioner Chloe Eudaly responded, and most urged the Police Bureau to make sweeping reforms.
“Portlanders are waiting too long for Police Bureau records, and the city is not meeting community expectations around transparency and accountability,” Commissioner Nick Fish said in a statement.
“In this next budget, I want the bureau to tell us what it will take – whether it’s better training, better technology, or more people – to improve service, especially for victims,” he said.
Fritz said she would support a one-time funding allocation to help the agency dig out of its backlog, with the goal of achieving a one-week turnaround for simple police reports.
A police spokesman could not be reached Friday for comment for this story. It’s unclear whether Chief Danielle Outlaw or other Police Bureau leaders coordinated with the mayor’s office on the upcoming change in records policy. Wheeler said it will take effect Jan. 1.
Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who used to be police commissioner, told The Oregonian/OregonLive that while it’s easy to say crime victims should get reports, the bureau will expect funding to cover those costs.
As it is, the Portland Police Bureau largely views public records as an extra service for which the the public must help it recoup costs, not a core part of its mission as an organization.
Some Oregon public agencies and government entities in other states view providing access to documents as a cost of doing business for the public — not a service for which reimbursement is required. But Oregon law allows state and local agencies to reimburse for the “actual cost” to find, compile, review and release government records.
Washington’s strict laws, which punish agencies for delaying records, are the reason the Seattle Police Department deploys enough staffers to be able to turn around simple police reports in under one week and for less than $1, its director of transparency and privacy told The Oregonian.
The problem extends well beyond crime victims’ access. The Oregonian/OregonLive also wrote about how activists struggle to get information, which can stymie civic engagement on issues the city has declared a high priority, such as pedestrian deaths.
In a recently released report on records access in Oregon, the state’s public records advocate wrote that agencies need to view fulfilling records requests as a core function, not an afterthought. Better-funded records departments would curb the need to charge high fees for public records requests, she wrote.
“When public bodies are not adequately funded, the requests are expected to make up the difference to cover the costs of public records requests,” advocate Ginger McCall wrote. “Public bodies’ ability to procure necessary technology and staff depends on buy-in from leadership.”
Wheeler made another records-related announcement during the interview: He said he intends to direct city bureaus under his control not to deny members of the press access to documents without his knowledge and city attorneys’ go-ahead.
“If they are going to withhold records from the press, I personally want to know why they are withholding records and I want somebody upstairs in the legal department to sign off on it,” the mayor said.
He cited as the impetus for the change a mid-level manager’s decision to keep records from a reporter, which spurred an appeal to the Multnomah County district attorney, who ordered the city to release the documents because they were withheld improperly.
“That as mayor is disappointing to me because it undercuts the public’s faith and trust in government,” Wheeler said, bemoaning the “colossal waste of my time and my staff’s time” to explain that misstep.
That change has implications only for the bureaus Wheeler directly oversees as a commissioner-in-charge. But that includes bureaus that frequently withhold information from the press and general public, including the Police Bureau.