Public information and the LAPD

I’ve been a bit late on this story about Mariel Garza, a columnist for sister-paper Daily News, and her students class project to obtain public documents from the LAPD.

As soon as I find the link to the original story, I’ll put it up.

Update: Her story is on the jump….


By Mariel Garza
Staff Writer:
OVER the years I’ve encountered many thoughtful, helpful, courteous and decent Los Angeles police officers.

But I’ve also encountered incidents that point to a dark side of the Los Angeles Police Department, one of institutionalized obstructiveness and a collective disdain for the public it serves. Unfortunately, it’s also one that makes it easy to believe that ugly arrests — such as that of William Cardenas on Aug. 11 — occur on a regular basis.

A 19-second cell-phone video of the arrest, which has been circulating on the Internet, shows two LAPD officers atop a prone man. One has his knee on the man’s neck, then punches him several times in the face for no apparent reason.

Throughout my journalism career, I have covered police departments of various sizes, from the tiny Beaumont, Calif., Police Department to the LAPD. And without exception, I’ve noted that the larger the police department, the more disconnected it is from the community. And that all too often translates into a distrust and hostility that turn routine arrests into a potential for violence.

I see it in the big blow-ups, as this video arrest appears likely to be. But also in the small, everyday interactions such as those experienced by a handful of CSUN students last week.

I teach a journalism class at California State University, Northridge. Recently, I asked my students to go on a public-records hunt. One of the acceptable documents for the assignment was the daily crime log of a local police department, something specifically noted as available under the California Public Records Act.

I should have warned them about the LAPD. But sometimes a bad experience is a better teacher than a happy one.

The students who chose to go to LAPD stations — which included Devonshire, Mission and West Los Angeles — had, every one, frustrating experiences. None was given access to the public record requested; some were even told they didn’t have a right to it. Worse though, was that in most of the cases, my students reported unprovoked hostility by the desk officers to their simple, and righteous, requests.

It’s true that these are secondhand reports. But over the years, I’ve had enough similar experiences that I wholly believe them. As well, I called up Media Relations to find out what the department’s policy was on these public records, and was told that they would only be released with an official public record request. Not exactly a policy designed to be citizen-friendly.

My students were genuinely shocked by the antagonistic treatment from the desk clerks at the LAPD stations, and they should be. If this is how unassuming college journalists armed with a copy of the California Public Records Act are treated with reasonable requests, imagine what a somewhat less-savvy citizen might experience.

There was a time, not too long ago, when citizens were not treated like criminals just for asking for information.

I suspect this daily sort of contempt for the public — not to mention the regular helicopter patrols of some L.A. neighborhoods — has more to do with the public distrust of the LAPD than the occasional video of a rough arrest. Police Chief William Bratton would be wise to spy on the daily interactions between his representatives and citizens for a better understanding of the department’s lack of community relations.

This is not a police state where everyone is under suspicion. But the policy of the LAPD doesn’t always seem to recognize that.

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