Congratulations, Dallas citizen, on your recent decision to examine the nuts-and-bolts operations of your local law enforcement agencies! A well-informed citizenry is vital to the functioning of democracy and, as we all know, crime stats are a particularly dusky corner of local government. Your thirst for knowledge and community spirit are a model for your friends and neighbors!
Now fuck off.
As far as we know, no one has ever written those words. But anyone who’s tried to pry information from the Dallas Police Department or Dallas County Sheriff’s Office (or DART or City Hall) has probably surmised this to be those organizations’ governing philosophy. They are black holes.
Which agency is the bigger black hole? There are many ways you might approach the question. You could do some sort of controlled experiment in which you send each agency an identical open records request and track how long it takes to process, or if it gets processed at all. You could compile statistics on the average length of time each office takes to process requests, how often they drag their feet by querying the Texas Attorney General’s Office, and so on.
But those things are hard. Anecdotes — case studies, if you prefer — are easy.
The Dallas Police Department
Last fall, when the city and county looked like they might implement a cite-and-release policy for marijuana offenses, a certain reporter — Journalist A — grew curious about the geographic and demographic breakdown of marijuana arrests. Was enforcement concentrated in certain areas? Did it disproportionately impact certain populations? Pretty straightforward questions.
So, in or about October, Journalist A submitted a request to the Dallas Police Department under Texas’ Public Information Act for a database including all incident and arrest reports for marijuana possession since the beginning of 2012. Again, this was not asking much. DPD has a massive trove of crime data. Isolating a single offense type is simply a matter of querying the database. Later, just to be sure he wasn’t underestimating the complexity of the task, Journalist A contacted a veteran member of DPD’s crime analysis team who confirmed that, yes, isolating marijuana arrests into a spreadsheet takes all of a couple of keystrokes.
It was surprising, then, when DPD informed Journalist A that it was in possession of no such information. Journalist A called DPD’s open records office, finally reaching a human being, or perhaps a computer program engineered to deflect attempts to gain meaningful information. The possible human kept repeating that since her office had checked and none of the relevant departments reported having the information, then the information must not exist. Journalist A countered by pointing out, with increasing fervor on each repetition, that DPD is a goddammed police department so of course it has arrest records. The possible human’s supervisor, also indistinguishable from an obfuscatory computer program, said the same.
Journalist A filed a new open records request. It’s probably true, if only in the most technical and literal sense, that DPD doesn’t keep a “database of marijuana arrests.” Certainly DPD couldn’t claim that it didn’t have the arrest reports themselves. Indeed, DPD did have the arrest reports and was willing to provide them to Journalist A for the low, low price of $4,000. Journalist A haggled. He pleaded. He didn’t want to kill trees, merely obtain a spreadsheet for his computer. Finally, after paying $200 for what he discovered was a thick stack of paper without the CD he was expecting and then haggling some more, Journalist A got the CD, discovering upon his return to the office that the spreadsheet did not include the address of arrest.
So, in January, Journalist A submitted a third request for marijuana arrest records. He received an email informing him that the information would take extra time to prepare: 20 business days instead of the maximum of 10 imposed by the Public Information Act. Journalist A called after 20 business days. The request was still being processed The news was the same the following week and the week after. When Journalist A returned from spring break vacation with his family two-and-a-half weeks ago, there was progress. DPD had finished gathering the information, which had been sent to the city attorney’s office for review. It was still under review on Wednesday, two-and-a-half months since the request was filed.
DPD's Kafka Score:
Dallas County Sheriff’s Office
Around Christmas, curious to learn more about how the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office processes federal immigration holds and how it managed to mistake an American citizen for an illegal immigrant and hold him in jail for several days, Journalist A requested various forms, emails and policies from the department.
The sheriff’s office, in what appears to be a reflex, wrote a letter to the state AG’s office acknowledging that it was in possession of the documents Journalist A was requesting but did not want to give them to him. The information, the office claimed, was shielded from public view by various carve-outs to the Public Information Act.
A mere three months later, the AG’s office handed down its ruling. Journalist A was not allowed to access the majority of the documents. A few, however, had to be handed over. Journalist A inquired with the sheriff’s office on Monday on when he might be able to pick up the documents. The county’s attorney promised to have them ready Wednesday morning.
Journalist A assumed morning meant 8 a.m., 8:30 a.m. at the latest. But journalist A was wrong. The window through which all official civilian business flows has the very generous hours of 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Journalist A arrived just before 8. He pressed the doorbell next to the window and asked the disembodied female voice — this one rudely unhelpful rather than robotically so and thus was pretty definitely human — whether maybe there was someone who could take his money and give him the documents he’d been told were waiting for him. The voice responded with curt finality. “The window opens at 9.”
Four chairs flanked the window. The electrical outlet Journalist A needed to charge his laptop and phone, however, was on the opposite wall. So Journalist A pushed one of the chairs against the wall and waited in the vacant lobby. He emailed the attorney, then the sheriff’s media relations person, Melinda Urbina, asking if anyone — anyone — could just get him his documents before 9 o’clock, when he had to be somewhere else.
Urbina responded half an hour later. “The reason you have to wait until 9 a.m. is because that is when the payment window opens,” she explained. “Our fiscal office runs the window and only they are authorized to receive payments for any type of documents. The request is ready and you can pick it up in person between the hours of 9 a.m.-4 p.m.” Journalist A could also have the records sent to him, but payment would have to be mailed in first.
Journalist A had already given up and left by the time he received the response, not entirely by choice. A sheriff’s department employee in a polo shirt had strode through the lobby on his way to the offices in the back, remarking, “You’re kind of in the way there, buddy.”
Journalist A wasn’t in the way, not in any meaningful sense. A half dozen people had passed through in the past 15 minutes, including a delivery man with a laden dolly. None of them had any trouble getting past. But the lobby is wide enough for five or six people — big people — to stand shoulder to shoulder. If Journalist A, who generally makes an effort to not be a dick, thought he were in the way, he would have moved.
Journalist A said he would vacate the lobby — was in fact eager to vacate the lobby — just as soon as someone showed up to give him the documents he was waiting for. Polo shirt said Journalist A was being an “inconvenience.” Journalist A laughed bitterly. Polo shirt didn’t like the laugh or the bitterness. He’d tried to be nice by asking; now he was ordering Journalist A to leave. He stood over the chair while Journalist A gathered up his things. Journalist A grumbles as he leaves that the sheriff’s office should consider opening its public window at a decent hour. “We’re a 24-hour operation,” polo shirt said. “For some things.”
Dallas County Sheriff's Office Kafka Score:
The verdict: It's a draw. They're both equally awful.
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