In response to its poor grade (“F–”) during a recent statewide audit, the Oakland Police Department has changed how they will handle queries from citizens requesting public police records.

On March 5th, Deputy Chief Lowe outlined to the Commissioners of the Public Ethics Commission how OPD has changed its public-records request procedures.

Chief Lowe outlined the steps taken to improve the grade received from an audit of public access to law enforcement information conducted by Californians Aware and 65 newpaper and TV reporters. The report was published in January 2007. The audit included visits to 216 law enforcement agencies from San Diego to Sisikyou. The statewide average was an “F.”

[Editor’s note: For more on OPD’s performance during this audit, see Helen Hutchison’s “Sunshine Week arrives March 11th.”]

A first step—and a crucial change—is that all public requests will go through one place, the Patrol Desk. This, OPD hopes, will eliminate duplicate work trying to answer a single request.

That desk, staffed by records personnel, will be open to answer requests five days a week during business hours. In addition incoming queries can be logged seven days a week. A log will be kept, along with copies of the responses, so that, if that question comes in again, it can be retrieved without repeating the search. There will be an online record of what was collected and what was sent out.

In the past, problems centered around where the needed records were located and in what form, e.g., paper, microfilm, electronic. OPD hopes to identify these locations so in the future time is not lost searching.

An important result of the audit was the realization that members of OPD were not aware of their responsibilities under the California Public Records Act and Oakland’s Sunshine Ordinance. A lot of staff training has been undertaken. Chief Lowe believes that a draft of basic policies and procedures will be in place in four weeks, ready for analysis by the City Attorney.

The testimony was obviously quite interesting to the Commissioners, who asked questions on many points. It seems that the allotment of incoming email storage is only 60MB and for outgoing email only 10MB—except for Chief Police Tucker, of course! This seems like an insufficient amount for today, when so many much communication consists of emails. These electronic records have the same legal standing as written mail and so are required to be saved.

As these improvements are put in place, it is possible that so many of the frustrations associated with records requests will fade away.

The simple idea to train OPD staff as to their duties under our Sunshine Ordinance and California Public Records Act alone is enough to save time and money, both in short supply today across city government.

One element that is partially lacking is an index to the log of responses. At present it is limited to what can fit on the “subject line.” Any good index must have more than one “entry point.” With some effort perhaps even this can be remedied.