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Foot dragging on Institute records request may prompt Council action

Councilman Smiley’s proposal comes as communities nationwide push to reform policing following George Floyd killing

Memphis Police officers get in formation along Union Avenue during a May 28 protest over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

It was a damning report on police brutality, one that told the chilling backstory behind the police killing last month of George Floyd:

An officer kicked a handcuffed suspect in the face, breaking his jaw. Police pistol-whipped another suspect. Still others were subjected to invasive searches of their body cavities.

Reporters at The Star Tribune in Minneapolis put the explosive Sunday opens in a new windowreport together on long-running police misconduct, in part, by tapping excessive force data they found right on the City of Minneapolis’ website – something that’s currently not an option here in Memphis.

<strong>JB Smiley</strong>
JB Smiley

“We don’t make available as much information as I think we should. That’s part of the distrust between police and community, because it’s not public. We don’t know what’s happening,’’ said City Council member JB Smiley Jr.

Smiley is pushing a resolution to urge Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration to put data, complaints and other information regarding police misconduct and use of force on the city’s website in a manner similar to what’s done in Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle and other cities.

Smiley floated his resolution at committee hearings on Tuesday and plans to bring it before the full council at its next meeting on Tuesday, June 16.

His proposal is inspired by online data hosted by the city of opens in a new windowChicago, which puts a range of information in open view on the city’s website, including statistical information about use of force and complaints filed against officers.

opens in a new windowSeattle, too, offers a broad range of information on police use of force including annual reports and data tables that are easily downloaded into Excel spreadsheets. That data lists thousands of incidents in which police employed force, complete with the date of the incident, the report number, the officer’s badge number and the race and gender of the subject arrested.

In all, the data includes more than 11,000 rows documenting a range of use of force incidents since 2014.

“…We are publishing this information to highlight transparency around our policy, process, and training with regards to use of force and how it is investigated,’’ the website states. “Working to maintain public trust is one of our core principles.’’

Seattle’s presentation is made in cooperation with the Public Safety Open opens in a new windowData Portal operated by the National Police Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that researches policing issues. According to the foundation, 130 law enforcement agencies nationwide participate in its Police Data Initiative to promote “enhanced understanding, and accountability between communities and the law enforcement agencies that serve them.’’

 The Memphis Police Department is not one of them, according to the Data Initiative’s online list of participating agencies. The site states its list includes “opened and soon-to-be opened data sets that more than 130 local law enforcement agencies have identified as important to their communities…’’

The list also doesn’t include Minneapolis, where Floyd died May 25 after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. But the city provides a similar range of information including opens in a new windowdata mapping of use-of-force incidents and downloadable tables listing thousands of use-of-force incidents dating back to 2008.

Libor Jany, one of the Star Tribune journalists who wrote the story headlined opens in a new window“Minneapolis’ Third Precinct served as ‘playground’ for renegade cops,’’ said the data has been on the city’s website for at least a couple years now.

“These sorts of policies and approaches change from administration to administration. So, we have had police chiefs in the past that basically stonewalled us just whenever it came to this sort of data or anything that might … paint their department in a bad light,” Jany said.

In Memphis, Smiley’s proposal for greater transparency is one of several reforms the council is considering following the Floyd killing. One includes adopting a list of police practices known as “ opens in a new window8 Can’t Wait’’ intended to reduce killings by police. One proposal also requests that Mayor Strickland form a community task force to assist in selecting a replacement for Police Director Michael Rallings, who retires next year.

Smiley said he believes he has Rallings’ support for his transparency reforms but worries that cost might be a factor. Strickland’s chief operating officer Doug McGowen told council members Tuesday that new information could be included city’s opens in a new windowData Hub site, where citizens can map crime trends or download monthly headcount totals documenting the number of MPD officers, among other functions. Rallings told the council new additions likely would mean paying more for an upgrade, The Daily Memphian reported.

Strickland spokesman Dan Springer said in an email the administration is reviewing Smiley’s proposal. “Anytime you update your Content Management System there are costs associated. At this time, we do not know how much it will cost,” Springer said.

Smiley said he’s fine-tuning his resolution and may incorporate transparency initiatives from other cities. The current system of obtaining use-of-force or police misconduct information through a public records request – also known as a Freedom of Information Act request – is often too costly and time consuming, he said.

“There’s a lot of red tape and it could take forever,’’ Smiley told the Institute for Public Service Reporting. “And I hate to say intentionally,’’ he said of the delays citizens and the media often encounter, “but it’s probably intentional.”  

Smiley said his resolution was inspired by a report the by Institute this week telling how the city’s Public Records Office wanted $6,000 to release excessive-force complaints filed against Memphis Police Department officers over the last five years. That includes money “for research, labor, and copies at $31.55 per hour’’ – a task that will require months of work, a public records officer said in an e-mail.

The Institute has since revised its request, asking to personally inspect the records. Tennessee law doesn’t allow governments to charge fees for simple inspection. But the question – how long the city will take to produce the records – remains open. The city said in a follow-up email it needs until Aug. 10 to produce the records.

Strickland said in a opens in a new windowstatement after the story appeared that records must be vetted and redacted to protect privacy concerns. However, release of records of intense public interest can be expedited and fees can be waived, said Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Smiley’s proposal comes as the New York state legislature this week repealed provision 50-A, a longstanding law that has allowed police agencies to shield misconduct records. The law change follows one in California two years ago, SB 1421 – The Right To Know Act – which opens certain records involving police misconduct and serious use of force.

“So, other states, municipalities and law enforcement agencies need to follow suit and understand that secrecy breeds distrust,’’ said Gunita Singh, legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington-based open government advocacy group.

“And now, more than ever, radical transparency is necessary for the public to fully understand the trends and behaviors of the police officers in whom we are asked to place our trust. So, I believe only radical transparency will suffice.’’

Smiley said the time to move is now.

“I think you can get more done in this time during this climate when the bulk of a large number of citizens are paying close attention. Things can get swept under the rug. And in this moment we have to move – if you want to see any type of change, any type of, accountability. So move now.’’

This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Marc Perrusquia
Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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