A Missouri police association filed a lawsuit against the city of Columbia, accusing its police department of violating the state’s public records law by refusing to provide records in a timely manner, then charging an exorbitant amount for the requested records.
Last summer, the Columbia Police Officers’ Association requested two months worth of email correspondence between Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton and Deputy Chief of Police Jill Schlude.
But the emails were not produced within three days as required by state law nor did the association receive a detailed explanation providing “reasonable cause” of the delay as outlined in Section 610.023 of the Missouri Sunshine Law.
And when the department finally responded to the records request, it was charging the association $893.59, claiming it will take several high-ranking officers to spend hours compiling the records.
Evidently, they’ve never learned how to use the search function in their email system, which would allow the lowest paid clerk to compile the emails within an hour.
The police association was asking for emails from the months of June and July of this year. And it filed its lawsuit in October, which can be read here.
The Columbia Police Officers’ Association is a private organization that is not part of the Columbia Police Department although the majority of the department’s officers are members.
However, the organization is not a police labor union, even though it is lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Missouri is a right-to-work state and thus does not have collective bargaining. Instead, the police association provides legal services to officers of the Columbia Police Department in the event that an officer is sued or is on trial in need of a defense attorney.
On September 22, the police association submitted a records request for copies of all completed morale questionnaires submitted to the city manager by Columbia Police Department officers.
Earlier that month, officers completed an anonymous questionnaire/survey that was designed to indicate officer morale. The results showed that morale within the department was extremely low, which prompted the association to inquire.
Despite the records request, the Columbia Police Department nor the city ever gave the questionnaires to the association, citing that the questionnaires were exempt from public record because they were considered personnel records.
The lawsuit argues that the law only exempts individually identifiable personnel records from disclosure and that the questionnaires are anonymous and do not self identify officers.
The Columbia Police Officers’ Association stated the following to KOMO:
“We tried making a normal request, as the law describes. When those were refused, we tried to work with the department and the city manager, we had our attorneys work with them, and everything we tried was unsuccessful. So we’re basically left with no other option. Pulling the emails and redacting private information should not take as long as the city estimates. Dealing with the department, either they’re not taking our request seriously or they just don’t seem to understand the law.”
The association is asking for the city and police department to pay attorney’s fees, court costs and a penalty of $5,000 per violation.
Controversy with Association
One year after Micheal Brown was killed by a Missouri police officer, The Columbia Police Officers Association created their own unofficial holiday called “Darren Wilson Day.” Darren Wilson was the officer that killed Micheal Brown.
The city erupted into protests once the “holiday” became public. In the midst of the chaos, the actual Columbia Police Department separated themselves from the association, stating that the two are separate organizations unaffiliated with each other.
“The Columbia Police Department is a separate entity from CPOA and does not in any way condone the use of social media, or any other medium, to promote divisive messages in our community. The Columbia Police Department will not allow a statement such as this to hinder our constant efforts to open the lines of communication with all people in our community,”
In fact, many city leaders condemned “Darren Wilson Day”.
“I found the post offensive, and I thought I needed to stand with the community and say what the police department thinks about it,” Burton said at the protest. “It was insensitive at best, and provocative at worst,” said Police Chief Ken Burton.
Columbia Mayor Robert McDavid also weighed in saying:
“Instead, our community and nation need to come together, communicate, and understand. CPOA is a trade organization that is not accountable to the City of Columbia. [The CPOA] has reflected poorly on the brave and dedicated men and women of the Columbia Police Department.”