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MAY 2019

Open government has a session to forget: No progress on reforms, major damage averted

After Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel used surveillance video footage to reconstruct a minute-by-minute account of official inaction and miscommunication that may have resulted in greater loss of life during the February 2018 Parkland school shooting, state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, decided he'd seen enough. He introduced Senate Bill 186 -- making sure nobody could ever obtain such footage again. 
The bill ended up passing in the waning days of Florida's just-concluded 2019 legislative session in greatly diluted form. Now, it applies only to video that actually shows the bodies of mass shooting victims, not merely the actions -- or inaction -- of police. 
The verdict on SB 186 -- "less damage than intended" -- could apply to the entire 40-day Florida session.

Law enforcement agencies aren't uniformly required to keep count of how often people die in custody, or how complaints of excessive force get resolved.  Schools don't reliably track and inform the public how often student athletes suffer concussions, or how frequently employees use restraints on unruly students. Colleges don't routinely keep count of campus suicides, or release tallies showing how Title IX sexual misconduct cases are being dealt with.
These are examples of "data deserts," shortcomings in data-gathering that frustrate the public's ability to keep track of how well government agencies do their jobs.
The Hearst Foundations recently awarded the Brechner Center a two-year grant totaling $125,000 to support in-depth reporting on Data Deserts. With the Foundations' generous support, the Brechner Center will bring visiting fellows with expertise in data journalism and technology to the UF campus to lead student reporting teams in identifying and spotlighting ways in which government data-gathering practices are failing the public and how they can be improved.

If you've identified a "data desert" that would benefit from greater public scrutiny, let us know about it:

Spring cleaning: Two steps forward, one step back for openness as legislatures wrap their sessions

Let's be optimists and call it a "glass three-quarters full" cycle for open government, as most seasonal state legislatures across the country wrap up their work and go home...
  • In California, the governor signed legislation clarifying that the state's 1,300-plus charter schools are public schools answerable to the state Public Records Act by virtue of receiving per-pupil taxpayer subsidies. That was already the interpretation of California's attorney general, but not all charters were following the AG's advice.
  • New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham pocket-vetoed a measure that would have given the state Lottery Authority broad powers to declare its records off-limits to public inspection, including records identifying prizewinners. 
  • Requesters seeking records in Wyoming will have the aid of a state ombudsman to help resolve disputes over access, and a little more leverage over foot-dragging agencies, which now will be under a 30-day timeclock to produce public records. 
As in every legislative cycle, some reforms failed to advance. A New Mexico bill codifying a recent trial-court ruling that makes state university foundations subject to the public-records act cleared two committees in the House but never received a floor vote. 

Bandits With Badges


South Carolina sheriffs have been caught on the wrong side of the law for a century, and with the benefit of an exhaustive dive into county spending records, Charleston's Post & Courier discovered that Smokey sometimes is the Bandit. The Post & Courier found county sheriffs using government credit cards to buy suits, first-class airline tickets, memberships at exclusive social clubs, chauffeured limousine rides and more. Short of obtaining a felony conviction, the newspaper reports, there's little to be done to rein in sheriffs' excesses; they're not answerable to their county commissions, and even the governor cannot permanently remove them from office. 


Law school’s research helped penetrate Colorado’s ‘blue wall’ of silence

By Jeffrey A. Roberts / Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition

Internal affairs secrecy contributes to a “code of silence” or “blue wall” in law enforcement, a Denver district court judge wrote in a 2005 decision, “by creating the expectation that things will be kept in house and away from objective outsiders.”
Transparency, on the other hand, enhances public confidence in a police department, concluded Judge Catherine A. Lemon upon ordering the release of an internal affairs file. Knowing they will be scrutinized “makes investigators do a better job and makes them and the department more accountable to the public.”

House Bill 19-1119, passed by the General Assembly and signed into law April 12 by Gov. Jared Polis, will penetrate Colorado’s “blue wall” by opening records on completed internal affairs investigations. Several organizations were instrumental in making this happen, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the nonprofit that I run, the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
If you would like to become a contributor, please send an email to with your idea!
With a bright light of public scrutiny shining on how police everywhere use force, New York's Legal Aid Society has created a searchable database containing four years' worth of court cases in which New York City police faced accusations of official misconduct.

The database ("CAPstat") is searchable by officer name, by the nature of the allegation, by the name of the accusing party and more. By using keywords, researchers can narrow down the types of cases to, for instance, find only cases in which settlements were paid, or cases in which the use of choke-holds are in dispute. Legal Aid compiled the data through a combination of court records, news reports and original research.

The database includes 2,339 lawsuits dating back to January 2015, involving 3,897 officers. It also includes records of about 1,800 internal disciplinary cases.  


The best defense...

Lawsuits can help bring scofflaw agencies into compliance with open-meetings and public-records laws, but litigation alone won't produce lasting improvement in the public's access to information. Dan Bevarly, executive director of the UF-based National Freedom of Information Coalition, explains in a post for the Knight Foundation's Trust, Media & Democracy blog that truly making government agencies more transparent and accountable requires systemic change. This includes making it easier for open-government advocates to track trends in state legislation and rapidly respond to cookie-cutter bills that imperil public access, and improving enforcement mechanisms short of litigation, so that the courthouse isn't the first and only step for a frustrated requester.
Copyright © 2019 Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, All rights reserved.
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