Opinion: Why We Worry About Radios and Openness

Photo courtesy of Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie
Nacho #24
courtesy of Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie

If you want a clear explanation about why some of us were – and are – irked by the MPD moving to encrypted police radios, well, look no further than last Friday’s court decision ordering the MPD to release documents that DC law says they must.

It’s not the fact that there was a fight over releasing documents; in the FOIA world there’s a constant struggle between the ‘forces of openness’ and the government employees who don’t always want to share information – whether it because they want to keep it secret or because they just don’t think taking the time is a priority.

What is in this decision that causes worry – now that radios can’t be overheard and we’re reliant on what the MPD chooses to reveal – is the court’s finding that MPD and the city attorney walked some line between ignorance and sloth on one end and flat-out deception on the other. Judge Macaluso talks about the MPD’s decisions to withhold entire documents as sensitive and opens with “this avowal is transparently false for almost every document for which it is asserted.”

Photo courtesy of BrianMKA
Police lights
courtesy of BrianMKA

Other words and phrases used:

  • those affidavits [submitted by MPD] are transparently false
  • The District’s willingness to rely upon false documents undermines every argument the District of Columbia puts forward
  • As far as the Court can determine her [Ms. Hanson] representation is completely inaccurate.

And right about that point, halfway through the transcript, Judge Macaluso reads the MPD and the District’s legal representation, Chad W Copeland, the riot act.

That paragraph states, and Mr. Copeland I direct this content particular towards you. That paragraph states, each reviewing official shall be held personally accountable for the affidavits he or she approves, that’s the police. Each reviewing official, as in you, shall be held personally accountable for the affidavits he or she approves. Those need to be your watchwords. I have two or three other police FOYA cases before me, and you let the word go out that no District of Columbia attorney is to do what you did in this case.

It goes on from there, further detailing what was either over-reach from Assistant Chief of Police Patrick Burke or a lazy assertion that material was sensitive. Which Judge Macaluso says is not so, or “is well within the common sense knowledge of the lay public.”

Here’s the transcription from the hearing; it lacks a quotation mark since it’s a transcription of the Judge’s reading of AC Burke’s statement but I think it’s sadly clear:

Assistant Chief of Police Burke swears each withheld record described above was reviewed line by line. He swears that. It is my conclusion that no portion of the order could be released. The privilege and sensitive techniques, procedures, and information are inextricably dispersed throughout the text. Redacting sensitive information would result in a document with only a title followed by unintelligible and/or meaningless fragments. The substance of all these records is exempt. I declare under penalty of perjury that the true, that the forgoing is true and correct.

Well, for forgoing is not true and correct. The forgoing is completely and obviously false.

I’m not going to keep flogging this dead horse; if you’d like to see the sorts of things that one of MPD’s top cops thinks are super secret, open the document at the top link. The Judge reads some of this into evidence, like some of former Chief Ramsay’s statements about the District being a dynamic city that serves as a symbol of freedom and democracy and that there’s vibrant neighborhoods and museums here. Or the mission statement of the family violence and child protection unit.

The point – and I do have one – is that it seems we can’t count on the MPD to release documents to the public without claiming that innocuous travel brochure language is privileged information. We can’t count on the District’s attorneys to give those ridiculous assertions a basic sniff test to see if they’re full of [redacted].

So why should we trust Chief Lanier when she says don’t worry, we’ll make sure to share needed information you can’t hear on those scanners anymore. We’ll share and share freely. You won’t be kept in the dark, you can trust us.

Well, the Partnership for Civil Justice couldn’t trust you, Chief. Further, the people of the city – already in belt-tightening mode – couldn’t trust you not to squander their money. Because this was so egregious a violation of transparency that the city has now been ordered to pay the Partnership for Civil Justice’s court and attorney fees.

So tell me again – why should we trust MPD to be transparent about events as they happen if they won’t be transparent at their leisure?

Well I used to say something in my profile about not quite being a “tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy” but Tom stole that for our about us page, so I guess I’ll have to find another way to express that I am a man of many interests.

Hmm, guess I just did.

My tastes run the gamut from sophomoric to Shakespeare and in my “professional” life I’ve sold things, served beer, written software, and carried heavy objects… sometimes at the same place. It’s that range of loves and activities that makes it so easy for me to love DC – we’ve got it all.


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