The Price of Transparency in McKinney

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!

Gawker sought to obtain information after the infamous pool party fiasco in McKinney, Texas about Sgt. Eric Casebolt, and filed a request for information.

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?

Gawker Charges

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.

29 thoughts on “The Price of Transparency in McKinney

  1. Martin Goodson

    Why couldn’t they come up with something more plausible, like their email archive is in a fortress jealously guarded by Ninjas, and they need time and money to recruit a team of crack mercenaries to scale the battlements?

    2,000+ hours for a *competent* programmer to write a program to scan email archives? Only if those archives are written in an ancient, long lost, language inscribed on giant stone tablets. For anything else, I think I’d be generous to call it a month’s work, tops. And that’s if it’s in some weird format from the early eighties.

    Does not pass the smell test.

  2. Dave

    You could use you observation here as part of an impetus to change such laws to close the loopholes and penalize frivolous attempts at delay. Like for instance, if there is a refusal like this and the city loses on appeal, a large cash penalty is paid to the requester for not timely giving them the information (with the amount going up per day of non-compliance). I am sure you could think of even better compliance provisions with real teeth. I know your point is (as stated clearly at the end), “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 matters” but I think if you truly have the will to do it, you can create laws that are very hard to undermine in that way. We just haven’t had the will (or political clout) to actually do it.

    1. SHG Post author

      Think hard. So hard it makes your head hurt. Then ask yourself, what’s wrong with this idea.

  3. delurking

    Well, they must know what they are talking about. I mean look, if they pulled a number out of thin air, like 2000 hours, or 2200 hours, or something like that, you could argue that they weren’t being straight. But clearly since they know it will take 2231 hours to “execute and existing program or to create a new program”, and that said program will take 6694 hours to run on a computer, they must know what they are talking about.

    Furthermore, they clearly waived the overhead on the 2276.25 labor hours, which shows they are acting in good faith.

    1. SHG Post author

      Yup, those are some pretty precise numbers they got there. Clearly, they couldn’t have pulled them out of their butt.

  4. Not Jim Ardis

    In fact, 2,231 hours works to just over 2 entire years (assuming 1 man, 7 days a week, no missed days, on an 8-hour work day).

    And it would take the server 278.9 DAYS to execute the program? Just who the precise fuck do these cops think they are talking to? What are they running as a server, a Commodore 64?

    1. SHG Post author

      2,231 hours divided by 40 hour work week equals 55.775 weeks. 52 weeks in a year. I think your Commodore is broken, Mort.

      1. Mort

        But the server can run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, unlike a person…

        Though I suppose this one needs frequent rests, for the hamster.

        1. Mort

          Gah, this is the person, not server. I need to sleep more at night. I’m just gonna go lay down in a back office.

  5. Jack

    readpst -S -o /opt/oldassemail massive_email_archive.pst
    grep -R -i ‘[email protected]’ /opt/oldassemail > assholes_emails

    That’ll be $63,583.50… just so you know I went a little over our estimate of 2,231 hours, so you are getting a bargain…

    McKinny PD Computer Forensics Expert

  6. John Barleycorn

    Hula-hoops and Gawker were destined to come together eventually.

    Call the bluff, cut the check, and prepare for the courtroom hula-hoop twirl.

    It could be a pretty good party if they play their cards right.

  7. Scarlet Pimpernel

    From an IT perspective I see this FOIl request as needing.

    1) A search through all emails that currently reside on computers/servers
    2) A search through all previous backups of computers/servers to find any missing emails that have either been obsoleted due to software upgrades or from deletions.

    Number 1 is what people are seeing but number 2 is the gotcha and why you don’t make overly broad FOIL requests.

    Going through 10 years of backups, could, depending on their backup strategy, require restoring up to 520 server backups (1 full per week kept indefinitely). Plus an untold number of PC backups, do they have centralized PC backups occurring ,if so then all of those backups have to be gone through, do they take images of computers when employees leave or PCs get obsoleted, if so then those have to be searched. Add in technology changes both physical, personal backups to zip drives, 3.5 or 5.25 floppies, and in software and what seems like a simple task can quickly spiral to many thousands of hours. Or at least provide a reasonable justification for many thousands of hours of work (see Cost of Electronic Discovery).

    1. Jack

      No – there is absolutely no justification for this, whatsoever. First, servers are backed up incrementally or differentially – you don’t just make a bunch of copies of your entire hard drive. Second, e-mails are typically archived separately and grouped by time period. Even if they aren’t archived separately and they have to create an archive from the server backups from tape, they are two orders of magnitude above reasonable. Even assuming they had a terrible backup plan, their system was a complete mess, and they had to hire an external IT firm to do it, you are looking at a few days, max, for the size of their department (under 250) and that would allow future searches to take minutes. An e-mail system of that size

      Also, nearly 7,000 hours of actual computer processing time? In what universe is that even close to reasonable? Almost 280 days of processing time @ $2.20 per hour? An EC2 compute optimized xlarge instance with 32 cores and 60 gigs of memory is only $1.68 per hour…

        1. Scarlet pimpernel

          Yes because strangly I would prefer pissing on an electric fence than proving my mad skilz on an internet blog.

    2. syme

      > From an IT perspective I see this FOIl request as needing.

      From an cynical ‘between PG & FairfaxCountys’ person’s perspective, I can say:

      “Now, if the Chief and patrolman were held on contempt in the hoosegow’s General Population until it is delivered…. ”

      Life is about incentives…

  8. Martin Goodson

    I would love to see what would happen if somebody from the Federal Government came knocking at their door demanding the same information and they got the same sort of utterly nonsensical response.

    FBI : Hi. Here’s the appropriate paperwork. See how it’s been signed by a really important federal judge? Pretty, isn’t it? Now, we’re gonna need everything you’ve got …

    City : Oh. Er … sure. No problem. Well … maybe a little problem. You see, our systems aren’t really set up for that. I’m told it’s really complicated, and that it’s going to take us 2,231 hours to write a program, and then there’s the almost 6,700 hours of processing it’ll take … we can probably get it to you by November next year, maybe October.

    FBI : Wow, yeah, we’re gonna need it a lot quicker than that.. You know what? What say we just swoop in and confiscate all your servers, and send them to our forensic labs to have our experts do the hard work for you. I expect we can get all the hardware back to you by December 2020, maybe November. Maybe.

    City : Oh, hey, you know what? I’d completely forgotten about this program here. I’ll just run it for you. PING! Oops, there you go. Turns out it doesn’t take that long after all …

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