By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Bring lots of quarters


State officials have ruled that it’s all right for the Cambridge Police Department to charge the Cambridge Chronicle $1,215 for nearly a month’s worth of public records. The Chronicle had sought descriptions of criminal suspects, the addresses of those who had been arrested and the addresses to which police responded between July 1 and 27.

“Given that a large number of documents, which may contain sensitive information about the identities of the victims and witnesses, are required to be properly viewed, I consider this to be a reasonable fee estimate provided by the department,” the Chronicle quotes Alan Cote, the records supervisor for the secretary of state’s office, as saying.

Trouble is, the Chronicle contends that, before June, the police had routinely been making most of that information available. Even though the state has now found that the police are not doing anything illegal by withholding certain types of information from its daily public reports, the police department is nevertheless moving in a direction of less openness — not a good thing for any law-enforcement agency, let alone one that is in the midst of an investigation stemming from the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates.

As I wrote when this first came up in August, the fees being imposed by the police department are an outrageous breach of the public’s right to know. And it’s not being done in isolation. Last month the Boston Globe reported on public officials who are using high fees to discourage bloggers and financially struggling news organizations from obtaining public records.

It’s time for elected officials who believe in governmental openness to rethink the practice of charging high fees for information that, by right, ought to be freely available to the public.

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  1. Newshound

    The government and Authority is moving away from the people, economically and politically.

    The Chronicle should have no rights beyond that of any citizen, and every citizen should have the right to quickly and easily view any public document, with small exception.

    It is the responsibility of all public authorities and government divisions to maintain records in a manner that is conveniently available to the public.

    Most of us – perhaps well over 99% of us, would prefer to buy the Cambridge Chronicle or our hometown weekly rather than visit the police station for our information.

    If the citizenry of this country can not get control of its own government, the corporate entities with runaway pay schemes that resemble embezzlement except that it is “legal” and much more, this country and our constitution is in the toaster and we all know what happens if it stays there too long.

    Unfortunately, Mr. Obama doesn’t have enough beer to fix the Cambridge police department attitude, let alone everything else that is going sour.

    Without important police news in the Chronicle, the same as every other newspaper, it loses economic value. As such, its days are numbered whether in print or electronic.

    When we allow the police and politicians like Mumbles and the Tobins and officer Crowley to impede on the First, everything is endangered except for those wealthy looking corporate executives and politicians living like parasites.

  2. JeffC

    These people are of the same political persuasion as those who felt it was OK to ask people to snitch on their neighbors for “fishy” thoughts. Why the double standard?

  3. TC

    The fees should be changed, with a standard of no more than five cents per copy. I think that city councils are able to set the fees on this, or even legislate that copies should be free.

  4. Newshound

    The accessibility should be the same as at the Registry of Deeds in Cambridge. People there cart in their laptops, scanners, laser printers, etc. and set up shop for the day at sufficiently numerous tables and benches. Why not the same with the cops?

  5. Newshound

    Maybe I misread this. Are the reporters requesting photo copies? That’s a different story.

    When I was just a pup we went in the police station, viewed the log and was given the report on anything we asked for, instantly and most cooperatively.

    There was no such thing as even thinking or asking for a copy, nor was there even a copying machine if requested.

    We didn’t even have those handy little notebooks made famous by Woodward and Bernstein. The newsprint from roll ends was cut up which was used for typing stories.

    On assignment we took a wad of newsprint, folded it up and wrote on that, often with a No. 1 soft lead Headbouncer thick pencil.

    Certainly the city shouldn’t be expected to take the time and expense to print out piles of copies for convenience and ease of reporters.

    Of course, these records should be freely and quickly available for inspection.

  6. mike_b1

    Why not just push the darn things live to the Internet like PACER does with all the court proceedings? Get the Police Dept. out of the documentation business.

  7. Newshound

    mike – that is a good idea – just open up the police mainframe computer server to the Internet.

  8. mike_b1

    No one is saying that, Newshound. You think the Boston Globe’s accounting is on the same server as

    Get a grip.

  9. Neil

    State officials have ruled that it’s all right for the Cambridge Police Department to charge the Cambridge Chronicle $1,215 for nearly a month’s worth of public records.

    I thought the paper brought the issue to court, not to state officials. Did they?

    one that is in the midst of an investigation stemming from the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates.

    Is there evidence of an actual investigation whereby an officer of the law might be accountable for making a bad choice to arrest the exculpated suspect or for filing a fraudulent police report (putting the words black and backpack into the mouth of the women who called 9/11 when she said no such thing.)

  10. O-FISH-L

    This is journalistic laziness at its worst. How about buying a police scanner for $159.99 at Radio Shack and hearing everything live, oft with full names, DOBs and SSNs? Maybe even respond to the call. That’s how reporters used to do it before Xerox.

    Showing up at the the window of Police HQ days later and demanding copies of past incident reports isn’t journalism, it’s indolence.

  11. Newshound

    O-Fish – from my first hand experience, the scanner is not a good database for publishing stories in the newspaper. It better serves to get a photographer quickly on the scene to record the event, and to alert reporters to begin to accumulate more reliable information for an attempt at a reporting a fairly accurate story.

    Mike – not really sure what you mean – thought I was simply agreeing with you that the police log and reports that most likely are stored in a computer or similar equipment by police be available on the Internet whereby anyone can view it totally in that format, or read the more newsworthy aspects in journalistic style in a newspaper such as The Cambridge Chronicle.

  12. amused

    I wonder if the public records supervisor is putting too much reliance on the paper nature of records, and ignoring the potential for database queries at a significant cost savings.

    So too, I wonder why the person requesting records has to pay the cost of redacting information from the records — the statute seems clear that the requestor pays for the search, but if the agency believes it has cause to withhold information,that’s not something that should be paid by the person asking for a public document — all it does it drive up the cost by putting a more expensive person in charge of getting the records, which are supposed to be obtained by the lowest paid employee possible.

    Moreover, if the department improperly redacts a single word, shouldn’t the cost of the entire redaction process be born by the government since cannot pass along the cost of doing something improper?

    Oh, and doing stories “off the scanner” is the height of journalistic laziness, and extremely dangerous. One of the rites of passage in the business is to rely on the scanner for a tidbit or even a story and getting reamed because it was wrong, misconstrued or out of context.

  13. Peter Porcupine

    Usually, when on a fishing trip, you have to buy bait.

    Why is the Chronicle different?

  14. O-FISH-L

    Amused and Newshound, if a reporter is listening closely to the scanner –and knows what to listen for– there should be no greater risk of “getting it wrong” than if the info was coming from any other reliable source. After all, the police themselves are relying on the same info that the reporters are hearing.

    Granted, with the advent of cell phones and computers in the cruisers, some of the info may not make it on to the airwaves like it used to, but in a business where time is of the essence, I’d rather a reporter listening to the scanner in real-time than sauntering into HQ days later to make photo copies.

    As for the reliability of the info on the police airwaves, I’m reminded of President Reagan’s words at the signing of the INF treaty. “Doveryai, no proveryai” loosely translated “Trust, but verify.” Nobody should be running a story based solely on scanner traffic, but the neatly bundled police report available the next morning often leaves out certain details that make a good story a great one. I think the current generation of journalists have lost the art of scanner monitoring.

  15. mike_b1

    Why are the same people who claim to be for less government then trying to erect governmental — yes, police are a form of government — walls? And so keen on spending taxpayer money to do so?

  16. Newshound

    Dan – I agree – Paul Bass and Company knows how to tell a story – a great read.

  17. Newshound

    If more or most stories in newspapers were written like what was in the New Haven Independent, circulation would be much stronger, advertising would be more effective and the survival-financial picture would not be as bleak, or bleak.

    Too many news stories are written in a sterile style without feeling, emotion, enthusiasm, etc.

    Not that many years ago, but in the hayday of newspapers, much of the reporting was done by non-trained but most enthusiastic writers and correspondents – they were excited about their discoveries and reported it with vigor.

  18. Mike Stucka

    Fish: Oh, the scanner’s always right. Like the time there was that rolled-over truck on fire that launched the big grass fire raging out of control near the 128/95 split on the north shore. If memory serves, a car had broken down.

    And of course police rarely go on the air with follow-up details; radios are a way of dispatching officers to the scene of a (suspected) incident, not their means of recording and transmitting investigation information. But that probably won’t stop your rant …

    Of course, significantly smaller Massachusetts police departments have been able to offer at least police logs and sometimes full reports electronically to reporters for free, on regular intervals; Salem and Beverly were great. Lynn PD was even trying to put the logs on a Web site for EVERYONE, but last time I looked wasn’t doing so in a timely manner.

    Such data releases can get you good stuff like — It’s nice for reporters, yes, but it’s also good for people to find out whether they need to start locking up their bikes inside the carport, form Neighborhood Watch, etc.

    Such a concept only makes sense to police departments that A) value honesty and B) want to help citizens help themselves.

    The PDs doing well should be praised to the heavens. The others …

    Mike, just for himself

  19. Mike Stucka

    Newshound: I’d be curious to get your impression of the Arcata Eye cop logs. Not every cop log item can be that interesting, and few people would have the talent to do so on many, but that’s a model I’d love to read and try to write.

  20. Newshound

    Mike Stucka – I read just this far: “7:23 p.m. Armed and brainless, two adult male baseball cap models parked”
    and before going further I’m 100% satisfied with this and will be reading more later.

    The Duxbury Clipper has been a most popular weekly for more than 50 years. It has always been unique in that it has always been a great weekly newspaper but its appearance is more professional these days under the editorship of the founders’ grandson who does an outstanding job.

    Years ago the police log was acclaimed at being just one of the many popular routine weekly reports that readers went for in the paper.

    I recall many years ago the police log from the Clipper being picked up and published in a national magazine simply because of its homespun, quaint and charming style.

    That is what sold or caused newspaper readership and interest years ago, and is so important today, too. A good story is a good story, whether we have to get it from a newspaper, over the Internet, visit the neighbor, hang out at the local coffee shop – – it’s either a good story or so often, flat, boring, and missing personality, passion, character and enthusiasm.

    To much today looks like Joan River’s plastic surgery – not to pick on Joan Rivers, though, just in case she is reading this, too. Personal offense is not intended.

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