‘Without access to public records, there is no accountability’: A denial for ShotSpotter requests

‘Without access to public records, there is no accountability’: A denial for ShotSpotter requests
(SOURCE: Shotspotter)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Crime is a problem in Birmingham. It’s top of mind for our city leaders and certainly a concern for people who live in and around the city.

One of Birmingham’s crime-fighting tools is something called ShotSpotter. It is a system of gunshot detection sensors. When a shot is detected, it reports the location to 911.

It sounds like great technology. It’s been around for years and a lot of cities use it. I’m guessing it reduces the response time. And it probably gets lifesaving help to shooting victims sooner than a 911 call from someone nearby who heard the shots.

But there’s a chance that money would be better spent on more cameras in high crime areas. Or more officers on patrol. Perhaps our officers need better equipment and more K-9 officers instead.

We can’t know for sure because the details of the $2.6 million deal signed last year between Birmingham and ShotSpotter isn’t public. We can’t gauge the effectiveness of it because the City of Birmingham refuses to give us any records pertaining to it. Records that belong to you – the public.

Let that sink in.

The city has spent $2.6 million on something to fight crime but won’t allow media (or citizens) to access the data the system collects. Nor can you see any analysis of its usefulness or a copy of the city’s contract with ShotSpotter.

$2.6 million.

That’s a lot of money. And no accountability.

In a city where crime is top of mind. In a city that has hovers near the top of nationwide crime rankings, according to FBI statistics. In a city that has a website dedicated to transparency and says, “Put People First.” I guess maybe that rings true if those people aren’t asking for public records.

For comparison – at least seven other cities across the country have made public the information we requested, sometimes even proactively publishing it online. And some of the news coverage is critical of the technology. It is certainly up for debate. Unless you’re in Alabama, home of the worst public records law in the nation.

It seems that unless the legal minds at the city decide to do the right thing, WBRC will have to file suit to gain access to public records. And the city knows that we are hesitant when it comes to legal action. It knows it is time consuming, very expensive and there’s no guarantee that we would prevail.

And Joe Blow Citizen doesn’t have that kind of money or time either.

So, we’re left to assume that our elected leaders are doing the right thing. That they are spending our tax dollars wisely… and not with companies that are paying for their campaigns. We’re left to assume they aren’t using government resources to facilitate an affair or pay for frivolous and unnecessary things. We must assume all sorts of things because the public records law in Alabama does not benefit the public.

And to be fair, the ShotSpotter example is just one of dozens of outstanding records requests that has been denied or ignored. (If you so desire, you can read about some of them in a previous editorial.)

I’m writing about this issue again because there is some good news pertaining to Alabama records laws. The legislature has a chance to make our records law mean something.

For the second time, State Sen. Cam Ward has introduced a bill to rewrite Alabama’s Open Records Act. (The first time, the bill died in committee because representatives of various municipalities said it was burdensome. Yep, you read that correctly. Too burdensome to provide the public access to records that belong to them.)

The proposed legislation is like the records law in Florida, where open government and transparency are a priority. It would replace our current and antiquated law on the subject.

Here are some highlights of the new bill –

1. Fees would cover copy costs

The current law allows public entities to charge “reasonable” fees to cover the expenses they incur providing documents to the public. But many agencies charge above and beyond the price to make a copy. (The going rate at an office store is about $.10 per page.)

2. Records to be made available during office hours

Some state and local agencies have limited the hours when records are open for public inspection. The proposed legislation would open records for inspection during all office hours.

3. Deadlines and denials

The current law says state and local governments must provide public records within a “reasonable” amount of time. To some, that means never. (Or in the case of The City of Birmingham regarding ShotSpotter, it means “sue us.”)

The proposed bill gives government agencies five days to reply to a public records request. Denials would require a statutory exemption.

4. Appeals process

Under the bill, a member of the public could appeal denials to a state Public Access Counselor.

He/she would have the authority to review the request, see the documents in question, and decide whether the documents are public records.

And officials who refuse to release documents, could be fined.

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Without access to public records, there is no accountability.

And unfortunately, there’s a storied history of abuse of power in the state of Alabama. We know that not everyone can be trusted to do the right thing. Sen. Ward’s bill will increase transparency and allow the media and the citizens to hold them accountable.

By the way, the original request for the ShotSpotter records was made two years ago. We did not receive a formal reply from the city until our lawyers got involved a few weeks ago. It is unacceptable that it took two years. It is also unacceptable that we had to involve our lawyers to get an answer.

But there are a few things that remain unanswered:

· What are we getting in return for the $2.6 million being spent on ShotSpotter?

· What is the city of Birmingham hiding from WBRC Fox6 News and the taxpayers?

A hearing for the bill is scheduled for Feb. 25 at 1 p.m.

Shannon Isbell is the News Director for WBRC Fox6 News. This is an opinion column.

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