By Margaret Wright
— It was an anxious wait for a response to the public records request Compass Editor In Chief Marisa Demarco submitted to the Albuquerque Police Department. Because she’d asked for the audio and video recordings associated with every fatal, officer-involved shooting since 2010, we were prepared to fork over fees for an overwhelming amount of information.
We weren’t however, prepared for sticker shock.
Demarco’s original letter asked that we be notified if the cost of complying with our request exceeded $100. That’s not just standard language for Inspection of Public Records Act requests. Knowing ahead of time what expenses we’re incurring is a financial imperative for our startup, shoestring-budgeted nonprofit.
Yet when APD Records Custodian/IPRA Manager Reynaldo Chavez emailed Demarco to notify that her request had been fulfilled, the attached invoice totaled a lot more than $100. It turns out APD charged us four times the amount the City of Albuquerque has posted as a “reasonable fee” for A/V copies.
Marisa asked if the city would waive the fee in light of the intense public interest in APD’s use of force. The answer: no. She asked if we could provide our own storage devices for the city to transfer records onto. No again.
State law says records custodians can charge for “the actual costs associated with downloading copies of public records to a computer disk or storage device, including the actual cost of the computer disk or storage device.” Demarco requested a detailed, itemized explanation of why our fees were so high. Chavez replied by re-sending the original invoice.
We were under pressure to retrieve the records and begin our reporting before Demarco was scheduled to go abroad for several weeks. With generous support of family, KUNM and the nonprofit Citizen Media Group, we cobbled together the funds.
But the roadblocks didn’t end there. First, there was this unusual incident when we went to retrieve our requested materials. And back at our office, we discovered that staff who compiled our requested information hadn’t used any victim names to label the material, despite having organized our request that way. Instead, each case file is marked with an internal APD file number. We’ll spend extra time and labor tracking down those numbers and matching them with the name of each shooting victim.
Susan Boe, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, says our experience raises questions about the City of Albuquerque’s transparency.
Charging fees that any member of the public can both anticipate and afford to pay is key to giving teeth to public records laws. “There are two issues here. One is that the fees need to be reasonable so that anyone can access them. And the other point is that imposing the fees needs to be consistent.”
Boe says she’s talked to some local media outlets and one organization that paid the city for some records transferred to DVDs. The fees they’ve been charged have been all over the map, and they often didn’t match the fee schedule the city has posted.
Furthermore, says Boe, “if it’s going to cost a lot for the public and the media to obtain these records,” says Boe, “then do we really have a good public records act?”
As of press time, APD’s Chavez hasn’t responded to these questions:
The City of Albuquerque’s records fee policy reads that the cost for each CD or DVD is $5. Why were we charged $20 each?
Does the APD records office charge each individual or institution consistent fees for similar types of records requests? If not, how do officials decide what to charge?
Demarco’s IPRA requested associated audio and video recordings corresponding to each fatal officer-related shooting victim since 2010. She provided the names of each victim, but the case files do not. Instead, each is identified only by an internal APD file record number. Why did the city not to attach each victim’s name to the case file?
N.M. Attorney General’s Office spokesperson Phil Sisneros directed us to his office’s website where there’s information on how anyone can file a complaint if a governmental body in the state appears to have violated state public records laws. He said complaints are “triaged” before an investigator is assigned.
It’d be great to hear from other citizens and media outlets about your experiences requesting city records. To echo the words of Boe, “We’re working on getting to the bottom of this.”