PUBLIC ACCESS TO THE BIG PICTURE
The City of Goodyear may charge significantly more for redacted body-worn camera videos used by the Goodyear Police Department... without discussing the measure before the public Monday night.
The following piece is my opinion as a citizen of Goodyear, Arizona and as a journalist of 34 years.
The relationship between law enforcement and the public has always been one that requires great nuance, care, and understanding. Transparency, trust, and accountability stand as vital cornerstones in that relationship. GRANICUS
How does our government operate when we’re not watching?
The City of Goodyear is close to making public access to government records more difficult — and lawmakers might do it tonight without holding a discussion during the public meeting.
And we’ve got a few questions.
This is how it appears on the Consent Agenda.
You must click into the Proposed Resolution to understand the measure would increase the fee for police-worn body cam footage to $46.00 per video HOUR reviewed… up from the current fee of $25.00 per video.
In the city’s Notice of Intent, “The Fee will apply to all persons who submit a public record request for a copy of a law enforcement video recording, except a victim of the criminal offense related to the recording.”
Additionally, the city’s proposal makes no guarantee regarding how quickly the request is fulfilled… in a time where processing these requests can be lengthy.
THE RESEARCH AND REASONING
According to a 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics report regarding the effectiveness of body-worn cameras, the main reasons local police and sheriffs’ offices acquired body-worn cameras were to:
improve officer safety
increase evidence quality
reduce civilian complaints
and reduce agency liability.
But it comes at a cost. And “as a result of police departments seeking relief to offset the personnel, equipment, and technology costs in complying with public record requests” for Body-Worn Camera video,” the 2023 AZ Legislature passed A.R.S. § 39-129. Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs signed Senate Bill 1148 into law on June 20, 2023, effectively raising what it calls “reasonable” fees for redacted police video.
Goodyear’s proposed resolution jumps on the new law and defends raising its municipal fee to offset personnel costs to provide the video to the public.
What’s the big deal?
New York University published an article in 2020 on this very topic.
Before the adoption of FOIA’s fee waiver provision, early analyses of the law suggested that it primarily benefited commercial enterprises because high fees prevented most non-profit organizations, news media, and academic researchers from requesting government documents. To remove this obstacle, Congress amended [federal] FOIA in 1974 to create a “fee waiver” provision. Even after the addition of a fee waiver provision, only 2% of all FOIA requests alleged a “benefit to the general public” that might qualify for a fee waiver.
For the same reasons that FOIA’s fees initially hindered access to federal records, fees written into state public records laws and local ordinances can reduce government transparency and accountability, or even prevent access to government documents altogether.
Public records fees are an especially difficult hurdle for 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations. Non-profits are typically supported by donations, grants, and other funding that comes with restrictions. As a result, many non-profit budgets are dominated by funds that can only be spent on specific projects or programs, leaving a much smaller amount allocated to overhead. LINK
RECORD FEES FOR RECORDS REQUESTS
In August, Camaron Stevenson - who teaches multimedia journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU - outlined just how hefty the fees like the one Goodyear is proposing can be.
In more complicated police altercations, where footage from multiple officers may be requested, the fees can quickly escalate. LINK
Stevenson lists examples of cost-prohibitive records fees.
2015 public records request of a police incident in Sarasota, Florida, involved 84 hours of footage police said would take 458 hours to review and redact. The cost was over $18,000.
In Nebraska, a news organization was charged $44,000 for public records. The fee was blocked in court, however, as state law in Nebraska only allows government agencies to charge for the time spent redacting documents.
Here are a few more cases we found where states had no limit on records request fees:
In Memphis, journalists have waited up to eight months for access to footage and have been asked to pay as much as $3,100 in hourly labor costs for video from a single case. LINK
“Las Vegas police plan $280 an hour fee for body cam footage. Critics say that violates law.” LINK
In 2016, a group out of Texas boldly described fees for body-worn camera video as such:
“This is to discourage people from making requests for this footage,” Alexander said. “That’s all this is about.” LINK
HOW WE GOT HERE
The statewide effort making access to police body cam footage more costly has been led by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills.
The history behind the legislation was detailed in an investigative series by Arizona Capitol Times. LINK
In 2015, Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills proposed a bill to exclude body camera footage from public records law entirely, except if the incident involved the use or attempted use of deadly force or the police agency otherwise consented to the release.
The legislation was reduced to a study committee on body cam footage, but the resulting committee failed to advance any policy recommendations.
But the Legislature would try the occasional cut out in public records requests in years to come, and in some cases, they were successful. In 2021, then-Gov. Doug Ducey signed off on a provision in the budget allowing the Department of Public Safety to deny requests for any video, unless the requestor met a lengthy list of criteria.
And in 2022, Kavanagh sponsored a bill to heavily redact body camera footage, though the legislation succumbed to a strike-everything amendment.
Last session, Kavanagh saw a bill to implement a one-time $46 maximum fee for copies of body camera footage signed into law. Kavanagh told the Arizona Capitol Times he introduced the legislation to stem overbroad requests for footage. He said the restrictions were based on a “small number of players grossly abusing the system.”
Note “one-time $46 maximum fee”. But the state law is now $46 per HOUR reviewed.
On Monday night, the local recommendation to increase Goodyear’s fee for redacted body-worn camera (BWC) videos used by the Goodyear Police Department sits on the Consent Agenda.
Goodyear is asking for the max allowable by law.
Approval could come speedily in a group vote together with six other measures - including a mid-year budget request “expenditure of funds up to $3,312,400.”
EYES AND EARS OF THE PUBLIC
Body cam footage has time and time again changed the headlines.
Video can tell a story the public otherwise would have to take at the word of the storyteller.
Police have good reason to employ the footage. The Bureau of Justice Assistance makes a case detailing the number of complaints against law enforcement actually can *decrease* up to 60% when video is used as proof.
No doubt you’ve watched body cam video. And while not many people are fans of media, we’re seeing how investigative and citizen journalists play an important role in the public’s right to know. Many times, the work of journalists is what corrects the narrative… sometimes even preventing the wrongly accused of going to jail.
Making redacted video exponentially pricier is no doubt problematic for the public.
EXAMPLES OF BODY CAM FOOTAGE IN GOODYEAR
Several times in Goodyear alone, never-before-seen video has shown the GOOD work on behalf of our Goodyear Police Department.
2022 Goodyear House Party gets out of hand LINK
2019 Police rush to save a teen left on a hot bus LINK
2019 Police arrest a Goodyear teacher accused of sexually abusing her 13-year-old student LINK - (This body-worn camera video has been watched thousands of times across the world.)
JEN’S TWO CENTS
Not only is it concerning that local government may make it more cost-prohibitive to access public records, it’s equally concerning the kinds of measures being added to Goodyear’s consent agendas.
In September, I addressed the Goodyear City Council regarding government transparency over a developer agreement which was placed on the Consent Agenda. The agreement had been discussed behind closed doors on multiple occasions earlier this year.
It wasn’t until the day after the agreement passed - exposed in a media report - that the two council members who responded to me about the measure had reportedly received campaign contributions from said developer.
The agreement involved a $16 million payment for a bridge - seemingly without any included language regarding “when the facility needed to be built, and no inflation stipulation was outlined,” reports Michael McDaniel, LINK.
“No language was provided on how the cost incurred will be calculated, or who would be authorized to calculate it.”
- “Goodyear Passes King Ranch development deal for $16M bridge”, Daily Independent, September 12, 2023
We have to ask. *What IS the trigger for placing items on the Consent Agenda? Deals of a million dollars or more? No. Measures affecting open-government? No.
We really don’t know. But we’ll ask tonight.
Finally, in regards of the body-worn camera video, one important question.
Current policy calls for each person who requests redacted video to pay $25. Each person.
Under the NEW fee guideline, if the job is conducted ONCE to provide redacted video, does “each” person pay that full price? Or is the portion of the fee to produce the video split between everyone requesting that one, individual copy?
For instance, if a redacted video costs $2,000 for the time and effort to be produced, does the city charge EACH person $2,000 for doing the job just once? That’s quite a windfall if so!
[What is the standard pace of producing such copies? How many minutes of work per minute of video? Does this vary between agencies?]
Lots of questions need to be answered. Please join me at the meeting tonight at 5pm to request Goodyear City Council pull the item from the consent agenda and discuss this topic openly - and transparently.