Your agency probably receives public records requests on a daily basis. In New Orleans, members of the media make public records requests every day. They request police reports, recordings of dispatch channels, email records, payroll records, disciplinary records, and whatever other records they think will help them develop a story. Sometimes these public records requests are fishing expeditions by media organizations. For example, there have been “standing” public records requests for disciplinary letters.
These records are also frequently sought by criminal justice organizations, criminal defense attorneys, criminal defendants, civil attorneys, and insurance companies. In short, these records are readily available to anyone in the public.
Typically, public records requests are made to the custodian of records. The custodian, either personally or through a designee, makes a determination if the public body has the records requested and if they are exempt from disclosure. The law requires that the requestor be notified of this determination within three days.
In New Orleans, the requests are analyzed, the documents are collected, and then the request is reviewed by the Law Department for compliance with public records laws. Any information which is exempted is not disclosed. They also attempt to redact any confidential information which might be included in otherwise public records. Once the custodian and the Law Department put their stamp of approval on the request, the documents are released for inspection, copying, etc.
You may be asking yourself “Why do I care about all of this?”
All NOPD dispatch channels are recorded. They are recorded even if the dispatch channel is not being used as a dispatch channel. For example, Disp 5 is often used as a talk channel instead of a dispatch channel. It is recorded all of the time. Those recordings are public records and subject to disclosure. There are talk channels which are not recorded. Nobody wants to create a public record about their need to remain in the bathroom for an extended period of time because things aren’t working out as planned.
When you send messages by MDT, those messages are always recorded. Those messages are public records and are subject to disclosure. We saw a dramatic example of how these records can come into play in the investigations that followed the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles.
Departmental emails are kept on city servers, even if they are deleted on a computer. YOU SHOULD NOT USE YOUR CITY EMAIL ADDRESS FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN CITY BUSINESS. These documents are public records. If you use your department BlackBerry to keep your calendar, all of that information is public record also.
If you are issued a department BlackBerry (or other phone), all text messages, phone call logs, notes, etc. on that device are public records. They are subject to disclosure much like any other public record.
There have been cases where law enforcement officers have been ordered to turn over text messages and phone call logs from their personal phones as part of disciplinary investigations. These orders have been upheld in certain instances where the request can be clearly shown to be job related and the request is narrowly related to the job. Once these records are turned over, they become a public record. If you refuse the order, it could be insubordination.
You should always be aware that it is difficult to accurately place the context or tone of typewritten messages. It is often hard to tell if someone is joking or being sarcastic in a text message or email when it might otherwise be clearly evident in a face-to-face discussion. When a typewritten message becomes a public record, the context of the discussion is not necessarily taken with it. In short, be careful of what you say (type). These messages (discussed above) are likely to become public record and can be misconstrued if they rely heavily on context to influence its meaning.
It pays to pay attention to public records. Carelessness can result in embarrassing disclosure of private information, disciplinary action, or criminal liability.