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Don’t delay on police records

Last week, I received some records from the Madison Police Department that I had requested about four months earlier. They concerned the one and only instance in which an MPD officer or employee was disciplined during the entire first three months of this year.

The request, which I wrote about in the May issue of Isthmus, involved a police sergeant who, according to a bare-bones write-up released as part of the MPD’s quarterly disciplinary summary, had received a one-day suspension for sending “an unprofessional email to command staff.” The MPD’s Professional Standards and Internal Affairs Unit would say nothing more about it — not the sergeant’s name, the content of the email, or even whether the suspension was paid or unpaid. And when I made an open records request for case records, I was told to expect a wait time of 14 months.

Under the state’s open records law, state and local officials are required to respond to records requests “as soon as practicable and without delay.” Just this week, the Madison Metropolitan School District agreed to pay court costs and punitive damages over its tardy responses to records requests.

As it turned out, the MPD’s records custodian, Julie Laundrie, was able to get me the records in just two days short of four months, thanks to her own diligence and the hiring of additional staff. It consists of 13 pages of material, including an interview with the sergeant, Matt Baker, and the letter he received from Police Chief Shon Barnes, informing him that he was getting a one-day suspension for violating the department’s rules regarding “courtesy, respect, and professional conduct.” It specified, as the public disclosure did not, that the one-day suspension would be “held in abeyance,” meaning it would be imposed only if Baker broke this rule again.

I thank Laundrie for getting these records to me much more promptly than she had indicated. But four months is still too long, especially given that the records required only minimal redaction. I have another pending request for the seven cases in all of 2022 in which discipline was imposed on a Madison police officer or department employee; the last I heard, about a month ago, the projected wait time for these records was still another 11-12 months. 

Root of the problem

The root problem seems to be that the department attends to requests in the order that they are received. This means a request for 13 pages of records that probably took less than an hour to review and redact are not processed until after the department handles earlier-received requests for thousands of pages that take weeks or months. 

My contention, which I have made to MPD officials, is that records regarding disciplinary cases could and should be provided as a matter of course, perhaps at the conclusion of every investigation that includes a finding of wrongdoing. In fact, releasing these records automatically, and not just in response to a records request, would eliminate the need for the department to make a time-consuming and litigation-inducing employee notification.

I care about this issue because I was a party to two lawsuits against the Madison Police Department brought by Isthmus and other media in the mid-1990s which led to judicial rulings that the public is entitled to records regarding complaints against police officers. Those wins have been rendered effectively meaningless by the MPD’s long delays.

Records regarding allegations of misbehavior involving law enforcement officials ought to be at the top of the heap of materials available to the public. I recently learned that in Illinois, a court ruling has resulted in routine access to all use-of-force complaints involving law enforcement officers. A group called The Invisible Institute has even created databases for Chicago and Champaign-Urbana where the public can search for and obtain use-of-force complaints for any individual officer; all you have to do is type in the name.

Compare that to Wisconsin, where obtaining records regarding these complaints can be a months-long if not more-than-a-year-long process, and where the names of rank and file officers are routinely withheld, except for the most serious offenses.

While there is no statewide data tracking response times to requests for police records, I am aware of other situations in which reporters have experienced long wait times in obtaining these records. Isaiah Holmes, a reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner, is still waiting on records from the Wauwatosa Police Department regarding a request he made in 2021.

Lack of transparency erodes trust

These obstacles to access represent a loss for the public and a missed opportunity for the department to build trust with the community. Take the 13 pages of material, which this article links to online, regarding Sgt. Baker’s infraction. They show that Baker on Nov. 3, 2022, fired off an intemperate email to four members of the MPD’s command staff complaining about a citation he was issued regarding an accident he got into while driving a squad car on patrol. He called the department’s Vehicle Operations Review Committee, which issued the citation, “a joke” and waxed about how “this department just loves tanking morale” and is “looking to hang you out to dry.”

This got reported to Professional Standards Unit head Lt. Angela Kamoske, who interviewed Baker and prepared a report. Baker, bless his heart, spent most of this time venting his spleen about the citation, which he is really corked about. But when Kamoske gave Baker a copy of the department’s Code of Conduct, specifically the part about courtesy, respect and professional conduct, he acknowledged that his email could be seen as unprofessional and discourteous. He later wrote a letter in which he admitted that “the tone was poor and the professionalism was lacking,” for which he apologized. But even here, he spent most of the letter grousing about the citation he got for the accident.

Somebody promote this guy. He’s brave and he’s tenacious. In fact, every single player in this drama, from Baker to Barnes and including Kamoske and Laundrie along the way, comes out looking good. This was a minor matter that the MPD took seriously, quite likely ensuring that the sergeant learned a valuable lesson. Baker, in a statement accompanying the record’s release, said the citation, about which he vented some more, “led me to send an email that was in hindsight out of line.” Yeah, it was. Now let’s move on.

The department’s response to my call to make these records routinely available—there are even ways that the volume of records could be reduced by creating a brief but detailed summary as a matter of course—has been, essentially, to say that it is doing the best it can. But it isn’t.

The final line of Baker’s statement includes a reference to news media interest in this situation. He said he had no objection to the media obtaining the email and in fact says “I believe the email should have been released without delay.”

He got that right.

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F08%2F08%2Fdont-delay-on-police-records%2F by Bill Lueders

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