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ACLU Sues LAPD For Denying Access To Public Documents

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(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the Los Angeles Police Department for repeatedly failing to comply with public records requests.

According to the lawsuit, the LAPD "systemically fails" to comply with the California Public Records Act, undermining public access to information. The civil complaint was filed Tuesday by the ACLU, in conjunction with a journalist, a college professor and a community activist/photographer who had also been denied records requests.

The 1968 California Public Records Act, which is modeled after the federal Freedom of Information Act, stipulates that an agency must respond to a request for public records within, at most, 24 days. The ACLU alleges that the LAPD "often refuses to respond to requests by journalists and others for months or even years, and in many cases does not respond at all," according to a statement from the organization.

"We had often sued different police departments under the California Public Records Act because they had failed to produce records that we had requested, but this case is a little bit different," ACLU staff attorney Adrienna Wong told LAist. "We're not trying to sue for a specific set of records or get the department to respond to a specific records request. We're making a broader claim about the pattern and practice that's established in the LAPD."

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Wong said that not only had the ACLU Southern California run into problems with the LAPD responding to public records requests; they also realized it was part of a broader problem. "In the course of our work talking to our community partners who are organizations that do police accountability work, or talking to reporters, we started to realize that it wasn't limited to us, and that lots of other parties were experiencing the same problems," she said, explaining how investigative journalist Ali Winston, UCLA professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez, and activist/photographer Shawn Nee came to join the lawsuit as plaintiffs.

Winston, who has written about law enforcement and surveillance issues for the Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica and Bloomberg BusinessWeek, among other outlets, has made repeated public records requests to both the LAPD and other law enforcement agencies, and has found the LAPD to be "uniquely unhelpful and non-responsive" to the records requests, according to the lawsuit. The LAPD has yet to respond to multiple public records requests made by Winston over a several-year period about a number of surveillance technologies the department employs.

"The technologies I’ve asked about—Palantir data-mining software, facial recognition for video cameras and powerful cell-site simulators used by the Pentagon and NSA—all have direct impact on Angelenos’ right to privacy that is guaranteed by the state constitution," Winston said.

"People know less about the goings on in the department and how their law enforcement [officers] are protecting and serving them, or failing to do that [when records requests are ignored]," Wong explained. "Beyond that, this kind of repeated refusal to respond to records requests in a timely way, to cooperate in figuring out how to provide the information the requester is looking for, discourages people from even sending the public records request. So, it sort of exponentially increases the lack of transparency,"

The lawsuit asks the court for a permanent injunction to compel the department to comply with the California Public Records Act, and potentially institute some sort of monitoring system to ensure that the LAPD responds to records requests in a timely manner going forward.

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"We would like for LAPD to consistently comply with the law. That's the goal of the lawsuit," Wong said. The LAPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.