When Jack Gillum of the AP asked the city of Ferguson, Mo., for copies of records related to the shooting of the unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, by one of their town’s police officers, he was effectively told no.
Sure, city officials offered to produce the records, but the requirements for getting their hands on the actual documents are in essence prohibitive for the media outlet, and seem to be in opposition to the state’s own Sunshine Law.
City officials told the AP that they could pay a hefty fee to get the documents but offered little to no reasonable explanation for the fees. Gillum reported that city officials asked for $135 dollars per hour for a full day’s work to produce documents related to the incident, including emails between city officials. The AP was told that in order to get to the relevant emails, computer programming skills would be necessary to do keyword searches in email accounts and that process would add fees to requests.
This comes after a series of incidents by the police in Ferguson, as well as other city and state officials, that gives the appearance that efforts have been made to tamp down transparency. For instance, the police arrested reporters covering protests related to Brown’s death and the way the city handled the aftermath. The police were caught on camera dismantling a media crew’s camera equipment after lobbing tear gas in the direction of the news crew. The police department has even been accused of misleading the public for the purposes of spin by selectively withholding and releasing information about both Brown and the officer who shot him, Darren Wilson.
Further, this pattern of events makes it appear that the decision to assess exorbitant fees for public records is not some neutral judgment about “public interest” but rather a political decision aimed at preventing the public from understanding exactly what is happening. So, even if the fees and the technical skills that Ferguson city officials are asking for are indeed necessary to fill the media outlet’s requests, the state’s Sunshine Law says that documents like these — ones that help the public understand government operations or activities — should be made available for free.
Without question, all information related to the months-long headline making incidents that occurred in Ferguson would certainly satisfy this requirement. In short, putting up barriers to accessing the information in question makes it seem that the city wants to avoid having people know what it is doing and is not interested in changing its broken relationship with the public. The excerpt below is from section 610.026 of Missouri’s Sunshine law:
Documents may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge when the public governmental body determines that waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the public governmental body and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.
And while the text says that the governmental body has to determine the information will add to the the public’s understanding of the issue, there is no question that that is true in this case. Countless news reports have been written about the case, news reporters from all over the country have descended en masse upon the once little known town, Congress held a related hearing and protests have popped up around the country related to the deadly incident. There should be no question that people want to know more about the day Michael Brown died and its aftermath.