ACLU Sues LA Police for Stonewalling Records Requests

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Los Angeles Police Department routinely, and illegally, rejects requests for public documents on warrantless surveillance and fatal officer-involved shootings, three ACLU-backed researchers say in a lawsuit.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sued the LAPD in Superior Court on Tuesday, representing an investigative reporter, a history professor and a community activist who say the LAPD ignores the California Public Records Act, which requires it to respond to requests within 24 days.

The Police Department can take months or years to respond to records requests, they say, and frequently fails to respond at all.

Reporter Ali Winston, who has written about policing and surveillance for the Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica, says that in 2014 and 2015 he asked the LAPD for records on its facial recognition technology and cellphone simulators, which allow officers to track suspects’ phones. Years later, Winston is still waiting for a response.

Winston called the LAPD intransigent in the way it handles records requests on surveillance technology and other matters of public concern.

“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 in a prepared statement.

The LAPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Under California public records law, state and local agencies must allow public access to agency records, subject to limited exemptions. When a member of the public makes a records request the agency has 10 days to respond. Within those 10 days, the agency must decide whether the records are disclosable, explain its reasoning, and estimate when the requestor can expect to see the records, according to the complaint.

An agency can ask for a 14-day extension but at that time has to notify the requestor in writing and make an estimate as to when the record will become available. An extension does not mean the agency can not delay or obstruct a member of the public from inspecting or copying public records, and it has to deny public records requests in writing.

UCLA Associate History Professor and plaintiff Kelly Lytle Hernandez bumped up against the department when she asked for arrest data and LAPD records about police chiefs and task forces, from 1965 through to 1992.

Community activist and photographer Shawn Nee says he experienced unlawful delays after requesting details on shootings involving five officers.

“Although all five requests were filed on the same date and ask for similar information, LAPD only responded to two of the five requests within the ten-day deadline,” the lawsuit states. “In both instances, the deadline-compliant response was a request for a fourteen-day extension, a new deadline which the LAPD subsequently failed to meet.”

The ACLU accuses the department undermining public access to information, says that Winston found it to be “uniquely unhelpful and non-responsive” compared with other law enforcement, agencies in Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego.

The plaintiffs ask the court for a permanent injunction ordering the LAPD to comply with the California Public Records Act.

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