Among the many quick and easy answers people come up with when faced with an information gap is the knee-jerk, FOIL it! Because there’s a law that says information wants to be free, and if there’s a law, then it must work. Problem solved!
Days after McKinney, Texas, police officer Eric Casebolt was filmed pointing his service weapon at a group of unarmed black teenagers at a pool party this month, Gawker submitted a Public Information Act request to the city of McKinney asking to see Casebolt’s records and any emails about his conduct sent or received by McKinney Police Department employees.
While it is sound journalistic practice to obtain background information on Casebolt in order to ascertain whether he has a history of using excessive force or engaging in racist conduct, this is Gawker we’re talking about. Salacious stuff, sure. Sound journalistic practice, well, that’s not a phrase often used mentioned in the same sentence as Gawker.
But they made the request, much to their credit, and eagerly awaited the response from McKinney police. And they got more than the bargained for. It seems information may want to be free, but the McKinney cops have a different idea.
Today, we received a letter from the city’s attorneys claiming that fulfilling our request would cost $79,229.09.
But is there a justification for such a whopping number?
In order to search for responsive emails, the McKinney PD need only do two things: first, hire a computer guy with mad skillz to create a program to make that voodoo happen, and second, make their com-pu-ter execute that program. At a cost of more than $77,000. No word on whether they take Paypal.
As Gawker’s Andy Cush notes, most computers are already capable of searching emails, because it’s kinda built in, as it has been since Windows 97 hit the market.
According to the letter, emails maintained by the city before March 1, 2014, “are not in a format that is searchable by City personnel,” and making the emails searchable would require “Programming Personnel to execute an existing program or to create a new program so that requested information may be accessed and copied,” to the tune of the aforementioned $63k. But since when are year-old emails not searchable? Is the city of McKinney still corresponding via telegram?
Of course, this is all nonsensical, and Cush ultimately arrives at the obvious conclusion:
Given the stratospheric total number—and the fact that nearly every email client on the planet has some sort of search function—it’s hard to read the letter as anything other than a deliberate attempt to conceal information.
Whether the end game is to conceal information, per se, or just make it sufficiently difficult to obtain it, until such time as the storm has blown over, nobody cares and the name Eric Casebolt has faded into obscurity, is hard to say. Nor does it really matter, as either way, it produces the same outcome.
A simple request was made, that should take 29 seconds tops, and be in Gawker’s hands by morning, to be splashed all over the internet and disgrace the McKinney PD for having kept Casebolt on the force despite all the terrible things people said about him. Or not. Maybe he wasn’t a bad guy, a bad cop, and he was just having a bad day? We don’t know, though McKinney’s response doesn’t lend itself to optimism.
Yet, what of the magic cure to concealment intended by the Freedom of Information laws that so many believe will bring transparency to government, and law enforcement in particular? These laws are supposed to prevent such concealment from happening. We all know about them, we trust in them. How could they have failed us so miserably, to the tune of almost $80 grand?
Everybody adores what appears on its surface to be an easy solution to a complex problem, Mencken notwithstanding. But the viability of solutions is contingent on the willingness of government to get with the program. Some do, which is why laws like this are valuable and should be enacted, but some don’t.
Some laws have loopholes big enough to drive a Mack truck through, such as being entitled to charge the anticipated cost of compliance (after all, why should the PD carry the cost of a media outlet’s requests?) and require it in advance (after all, why should the PD have to chase Gawker down for payment later?). It all makes perfect sense, and serves to turn the law into a joke.
And even if this absurd cost is reversed on appeal, as Gawker says it will do, the time frame within which this information matters will have long since elapsed. It’s not that the world is fascinated by some former McKinney cop named Casebolt, but that there was an incident that occurred at a discrete point in time, and within the window of interest, this background information might have mattered.
Next year, nobody will give a damn. And in case math isn’t your strong suit, the 2,231 hours it will take for someone to create out of thin air a program that will be capable of search email is more than a year of full time, no vacation, eat-lunch-at-your desk, work. And that’s assuming the program works.
This isn’t to suggest that freedom of information laws aren’t good things, or that every governmental entity is as full of shit as McKinney PD when it comes to compliance, but that simple legislative solutions are a starting point, not an ending point, for addressing problems. If government chooses to act in good faith, great.
But if not, there will never be a shortage of ways to mess with laws, to delay compliance, to undermine their purpose and create roadblocks at the critical moments when the benefits of the law matter.