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Thursday, March 19, 2015 12:01 am

State police just don’t get it

Secretary of State is one of the good guys of FOIA

 


FOIA Facts and Friction
Staff writer Bruce Rushton will sit on a panel organized by the Better Government Association to discuss the state Freedom of Information Act and the future of the law intended to ensure open and transparent government. The March 24 event called FOIA Facts and Friction will also include experts from the BGA, the state legislature and the Illinois Municipal League. Scheduled to last 90 minutes, the discussion will begin at 4 p.m. at the State Journal-Register building at One Copley Plaza in Springfield. Admission is free, but seating is limited so those who wish to attend should register for the event by going to the BGA website at www.bettergov.org or by calling Bethany Jaeger at 789-0960.


This being Sunshine Week, when journalists are supposed to decry secrecy and call for open government, I thought that it would be a good idea to praise those who follow the law in Illinois and point out those who treat the Freedom of Information Act as a canker sore in the mouth of government, an irritant that’s supposed to keep the citizenry informed no matter how painful this might prove for powers that be.

Some agencies are worth celebrating. For routine requests – think annual reports for charities – working journalists don’t even have to file written requests with the secretary of state. The secretary of state typically hands over the record when you ask for it, just like any private-sector business would do. That’s refreshing when so many other agencies demand formal written requests, which necessitate formal letters of response, before releasing documents showing the location of bathrooms in public buildings.

The Sangamon County sheriff’s office and the county board have also been pretty good through the years. Somewhere in the middle lies the city of Springfield, one of those outfits that demands a written request for most everything, which generates a lot of paperwork, which I suppose helps keep people employed at city hall. You’ll usually, not always, get what you ask for, but not before your name goes up on the city’s website so the world can see that you’ve asked for the mayor’s emails or records of code violations at your neighbor’s house, which helps explain why Calvin and Hobbes and my pug, who draws little attention from competing reporters who might otherwise want to know what I want to know, have made FOIA requests to the city of Springfield. There is, after all, no law requiring that requesters actually exist.

In a class by itself, we have Illinois State Police.

Now, you might be asking yourself, “Didn’t state police turn over more than 850 pages of Shredgate files on election day, just seven business days after reporters filed FOIA requests?” Yes, indeed, state police did that, beating the maximum statutory deadline for responding to requests by three days, which allowed certain members of the media to regale voters with nothing-new tales of the two-year-old scandal while polls were still open.

The lightning-quick response stands in stark contrast to what state police did last summer, when a pair of bureaucrats from the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services were pulled over at gunpoint by state cops in Jefferson County. The bureaucrats wanted to know why they’d had guns pointed at them as they exited the Chevy with state motor pool plates, so they asked for a copy of the police report.

The law says that agencies must answer FOIA requests within five days, but agencies can get an additional five days if certain conditions apply, and state police said that all five conditions allowed by the law applied in this case, so they gave themselves an extension. After another five days passed, state police invented a FOIA exemption: “The responses from our records unit has been delayed due to low staffing,” Lt. Steve Lyddon wrote to one of the bureaucrats in lieu of turning over the report as required by law.

So was born a FOIA lawsuit against Illinois State Police that the cops couldn’t possibly win. After being sued, police turned over the 27-page report, with the names of all officers blacked out. The episode, it turns out, may have been a case of confusion – contrary to what a motorist had reported, neither of the state employees had pointed a gun at anyone. The only remaining question is how much taxpayers, who are on the hook for the bureaucrats’ legal fees, will have to shell out.

This sort of thing is not an anomaly when it comes to the state police, as anyone with any experience trying to pry records from state cops can well attest. Consider the FOIA requests I recently filed under a pseudonym. I asked for a copy of ISP’s policy for handling FOIA requests and a copy of all police reports naming Robert Pirsig as a suspect in any crime. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a 1974 bestseller, is unlikely to have been involved in a crime, but just to make sure, I provided a fake birth date.

After five days, ISP gave itself a five-day extension, citing every reason allowed by the law: The records are stored at another location; the request requires that a substantial number of records be collected; the request requires an extensive search; the records had to be reviewed to determine whether they should be disclosed or whether redactions were needed; the records couldn’t be provided without unduly burdening or interfering with operations.

Seven days after making my request, I got ISP’s three-page FOIA policy, which, among other things, requires that the officer who receives requests alert the agency’s public information officer about any requests that might draw media attention. Pirsig, the phantom criminal, was trickier – it took the cops 10 days to tell me that no records existed. Perhaps they were so exhausted from churning out the Shredgate report in time for election day that they couldn’t respond faster.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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