News 5 investigates one word that seems to be hard to live up to; transparency. Many politicians and public officials like to use the word as reassurance they aren’t doing anything wrong.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson made a big deal of removing the door when he took over the mayor’s office, a symbolic gesture of transparency. But we’ve since found there is a difference between transparency and reality.
But we found a number of examples where information deemed public information by state law, is being tightly controlled. Several of those examples are within the Mobile Police Department.
After a traffic crash in December 2016 that involved a Mobile Police vehicle, we requested information about all of the traffic accidents police vehicles were involved in for the past two years. So far neither the city nor the police department have responded.
We requested the ‘use of force police report’ following a pepper-spraying incident. Students gathered at the mid-town cannon celebrating a long-held tradition after the Mcgill-Toolen Murphy High football game were pepper-sprayed by an officer.
That incident happened in September 2016. We requested the report in October. 5 months later, we’re still waiting on a response.
For two years we’ve requested a database of Mobile Police auctions to see how money raised from the auctions is being used. We’re still waiting for that as well.
And we’ve made repeated requests for police officer body camera video. The department has so far released no body cam video, even though other departments in the state like Tuscaloosa and Summerdale have. City Attorney Ricardo Woods and Communication Director George Talbot argue that body cam video is not covered specifically as a public record under the state’s public record law. However, the state’s public records law does not say it isn’t a public record.
City Attorney Ricardo Woods and Communication Director George Talbot argue that body cam video is not covered specifically as a public record under the state’s public record law. However, the state’s public records law does not say it isn’t a public record. Body cameras were added to the department 18 months ago, specifically designed to add transparency when it comes to police use of force. But if you never see the video, what’s the point?
In the past former Police Chief James Barber has said he would not be in favor of releasing body cam video while an investigation is on-going. However, even requests for body cam video in incidents where the investigation has been completed have been denied. Those city leaders say they would rely on the state legislature to take up the issue.
It has also become routine for the police department to ask why we are requesting information. The state’s public record law does not say people have to give a reason for making the request for information.
Access to public records may not be on your mind every day, but it is on ours. Access to public records, of the lack of it, has an impact on you. Without the ability to know how city, state and the federal government operates could lead some officials to act in ways that may not be in the best interest of the community.