For years, the Little Rock Police Department has been charging the public $10 each for burglary reports, incident reports and other printed materials, in what might be a violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act — or at least a case of governmental fleecing.
The Little Rock city attorney says those same materials, all public information, can be obtained from the LRPD for the physical cost of copying by invoking the FOI law. However, police don't inform record-seekers of that fact.
As stated in the FOI statute, law enforcement agencies are allowed to charge up to $10 for vehicle-related reports. For all other records, the amount that can be charged for documents is limited to the cost of materials and the amount of time spent in copying the items — the latter indexed to the salary of the lowest-paid employee available who can run the copy machine. The law says that the custodian of records can furnish free or reduced-charge copies at his or her discretion. The LRPD provides copies of their reports to most local media agencies for free.
Meg Matthews, spokesperson for the City of Little Rock, said that in 2010, the LRPD took in $286,192 from the sale of police reports. Matthews said the sales records can't be electronically sorted between vehicle-related reports and all others, so she couldn't determine how much of that total came from records that would have been available for the cost of copying had seekers known about the FOI.
Little Rock Police Department spokesman Lt. Terry Hastings said that all police reports generated by the department have been $10 for as long as he can remember.
"If you're a victim, it's free. Anybody else, they're 10 bucks," Hastings said. "We didn't just decide to arbitrarily start charging for those. There's been a city ordinance around forever."
Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter perused the FOI law after an inquiry from Arkansas Times. "I've looked up some statutes, and I'm having some of the same concerns you're having," Carpenter said. "I've made a request over there [at the LRPD] saying where are you charging this from, and what's the basis for it?"
After speaking with the police department, Carpenter said they told him, "the policy is that the police report is $10, unless you seek it under FOI." Carpenter said he doesn't think there's any part of the law that requires police to inform those seeking records that they could get them cheaper by invoking the FOI.
In a follow-up call to Hastings, he said the department would abide by whatever Carpenter thought on the issue. He deferred to Carpenter when asked whether it would be proper to inform record-seekers of the FOI.
The $10 charge for police reports doesn't sit well with Paul Carr, who runs the local news and satire blog "Forbidden Hillcrest," and is in the process of setting up another blog at www.stationxray.com, which will post the audio of Little Rock police radio dispatches to crime scenes, as captured from scanners. Carr said he originally hoped to publish police reports on the Station X-Ray site, but abandoned that idea after he learned he would be charged for each report. "When I went down there, it was 10 bucks a pop, which really surprised me," Carr said. "I thought these were public records." Carr said he tried to call Hastings to discuss the matter several times, but his phone calls were never returned. "If it was some rare thing I guess I could cough up $10," Carr said. "But with the FOI, my understanding is that they're supposed to charge whatever it costs to produce the document. Ten dollars is out of line."
John Tull is a Little Rock attorney who serves as counsel for the Arkansas Press Association. He called the LRPD policy "disappointing." Tull said he receives calls all the time from people about the FOI, but this one is a first for him.
"This is the first I know of, where apparently a public agency has been aware of what the law is, but has not voluntarily offered the charge that would be due if a request was made specifically pursuant to the [FOI] law."
Tull notes the issue falls into a legal "gray area." While he said the Arkansas Supreme Court has "clearly held" that it's illegal to charge in excess of the cost of production and materials when an FOI request is made, he added that police officials could argue that it isn't a request under the FOI law unless the FOI law is mentioned.
"If there's any part of our city that needs money," Tull said, "it's certainly the police force. But I don't think that's a good precedent to set as far as following the letter of the law or the spirit of the law."