FOIA requests to police sometimes denied improperly

Posted at 9:13 PM, May 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-20 21:13:09-04

Suffolk, Va. - A review of thousands of police replies to citizens seeking public records shows most Hampton Roads departments follow the law, even if they only release the minimum required. However, NewsChannel 3 found dozens of instances where citizens were improperly denied records, where police cited the wrong codes and exemptions, or where authorities failed to cite the specific reasons they were withholding documents.

Suffolk police, for example, wrote dozens of denials saying requests involved "current investigative information or material pending a court hearing." That phrase is not found anywhere in the act's exemptions. Suffolk usually followed that phrase by citing a code section -- 2.2-3706 (A) -- which is the entire police-records section of FOIA. The law says police must cite a specific exemption.

NewsChannel 3 provided the responses to Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. She said Suffolk's responses were overly broad, and used cut-and-paste, form-letter language that didn't serve citizens.

"When you are using this broad-based exemption to cover everything, and not getting down into the specific reason why it's being denied, that doesn't seem to be  in favor of the citizen."

Suffolk also commonly used that same language -- "current investigative information or material pending a court hearing" -- in dozens more responses, but backed it up with a different code section, the exemption for "noncriminal records."

Suffolk police administrators also denied a domestic-violence victim the photographs police took of her. Police again cited the "noncriminal" code section that protects a person's privacy.

NewsChannel 3 used the Freedom of Information Act to request from all seven Hampton Roads police departments the cover letters they included in their FOIA responses last year.

Four departments -- Hampton, Newport News, Suffolk and Portsmouth -- provided the records at no cost, or minimal cost. Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Norfolk said they would not release the records unless we paid a combined $2,500 for officers to review or retrieve each cover letter. We declined.

The Chesapeake City Attorney's Office provided its police-related FOIA records for 2014 at no cost. NewsChannel 3 reported on Tuesday that Chesapeake denied all requests for police body-camera video last year, and often sent the requester a legal bill for the staff's time responding to the query. The city sometimes sent bills even when there was no video recorded.

Hampton police generally released records and cited specific FOIA sections when denying release. But sometimes Hampton withheld mug shots and crime summaries. Those are two things FOIA says police must release.

FOIA does not require police to respond to out-of-state requests. Some departments, like Portsmouth, routinely did, "as a courtesy." Some, like Hampton, were more uneven in the responses. Hampton denied dozens of out-of-state requests, but also granted many. The city sent replies to citizens and businesses in states like Florida, Georgia and Alabama. But when a North Carolina woman requested her mother's suicide report "for personal reasons," Hampton declined.

Portsmouth and Newport News provided some level of records to nearly all citizens who asked. Both departments charged minimal amounts, or waived fees completely.

Rhyne said that is the goal of the state's open-records act.

"Governments, including police, they are still accountable to the people, and that includes through their records," she said.


Chesapeake: No police video; here’s your bill