On Dec. 30, 2014, intending to pursue several related stories about the Cleveland Police Department in the aftermath of the killing of Tamir Rice, I made five public records requests with the city of Cleveland.
Sent as discrete email requests, I received tracking numbers for each of them on Jan. 3, 2015. (Happy New Year!) Mine were the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth requests officially received that year. Or at least that's what the tracking numbers — 15-0004 through 15-0008 — seemed to indicate.
The requests were emailed to "email@example.com" and CC'd to Ali Pillow, the police public information officer at the time, and Dan Ball, the city's erstwhile assistant media relations director with whom I'd established a congenial working relationship.
To give you a sense of what I was looking into, here's what I requested:
- 15-0004: The database from the Office of Internal Affairs which shows the investigations that led to recommendations of charges, any files related to those investigations, the recommended charges, and whether charges were brought.
- 15-0005: The database from the Office of Professional Standards which shows the investigations that led to recommendations of charges against police officers, any files related to those investigations, the recommended charges, and whether charges were brought.
- 15-0006: All course curriculum and course materials for the cultural sensitivity classes or workshops that all Cleveland Police Officers are required to attend. I'd also like the Cleveland Division of Police's official policy related to cultural sensitivity and the continuing education of officers on that subject.
- 15-0007: All internal documents produced since 2010 relating to the recruitment of female and minority officers.
- 15-0008: All documents turned over to the DOJ for the report published in December 2014 on the Cleveland Division of Police. I'd also like the names of all officers and supervisors and other police personnel interviewed by the DOJ for its report.
I had obviously been digging into the DOJ report and, trying to orient my reporting along thematic lines for 2015, was eager to follow-up on much of the information contained within it.
Perhaps naively, I'm sure I assumed that at least the first three of these requests would be straightforward (if not easy) to process. My intention in submitting them as individual requests, I'm guessing, was to allow the records folks to tackle the material in bite-size chunks.
I must have thought, for example, that the Office of Professional Standards and the Office of Internal Affairs would have existing databases like the ones I was looking for, and could be sent to me as Microsoft Excel files (lol). I no doubt knew that the third and fourth requests would generate a substantial number of pages.
But again, looking at these now, I can't have thought that they'd be difficult to track down. Officers do cultural sensitivity training. It seems pretty straightforward to ask for that portion of the course curriculum. I suspect I knew that the fifth request would be met with resistance. It was a huge amount of material, but I must have wanted to know how
the DOJ came by their findings.
What I couldn't have expected — though perhaps I should have — was absolute silence.
The first I heard about any of these requests, long after I'd forgotten I'd made them and pursued hundreds of other stories, was Nov. 3, 2017, last week. For the record, that's nearly three years after the requests were made. I received a voicemail on my personal cell phone from a public records employee asking about request #15-0007, documents relating to the recruitment of female and minority officers. He wanted to know if I'd like this request "open or closed."
Apropos of what now?
I thought to myself. I was stunned. Cynically, I assumed that in light of Cleveland.com's badgering of Frank Jackson for his abysmal performance on public records, random reporters were being thrown bones a few days before the election. I honestly couldn't even remember making this request. Even when I found it in my email archives, I didn't realize it was part of a batch of five.
I talked to that employee by phone this morning. I wanted to tell him that I'd like this request open,
please, and was curious how he came upon it. Was he sifting through backlogs?
He was a nice guy, but he informed me that he'd made an error, a "boo boo," in fact. He hadn't realized I was with the media and he wasn't supposed to have reached out. Another employee, Kim Roberson, would have to handle this request and get in touch with me. (This guy dealt mostly with attorneys, he said.) But if he
was in possession of the request, I asked, how would Kim even know to contact me? Were they honestly this far behind? And what if he hadn't made the boo boo? Would I ever
have been contacted? All he could say was that he'd tell Kim we spoke, and that I was still interested in the documents.
Of course I'm still interested! And only when I searched through my past email correspondence with Kim Roberson, this morning, did I discover my batch of requests from Dec. 30, 2014. The city will be discouraged to know that I'm still interested in those, too. I realized — with feelings of disgust and remorse — that a year of what could have been (I hope) valuable police reporting was killed by the city's failure to respond. And also by my failure to diligently follow up.
(I should say that the records department is almost definitely overtaxed. And nevertheless, they have responded to several of my requests in the intervening years related to topics as diverse as downtown carriage licences and Q Deal attorney fees. But other requests have gone unfilled. I'm looking through those now.)
This is, of course, an ingenious strategy for the suppression of information. If a records department takes years not to fill requests but merely to respond
to them, reporters can't possibly bank on that public material in their active reporting. As such, they often just sort of forget about it. Or at least I did. And all the records people have to do, by the time they reach out, is ask if the reporter still cares.
Open or closed?