By Rusty Bradshaw
Established Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office policies and procedures appear to be putting hurdles between the public and public records.
Meanwhile, MCSO officials admit of backlog of unfulfilled records requests is beginning to pile up.
Historically, the Independent routinely publishes a list of MCSO activity in the Sun Cities. This listing included a daily log provided by MCSO until last year. At the time those logs were no longer made available, Capt. Paul Chagolla, MCSO District 3 commander, said MCSO officials were taking ownership of collected data. He went on to say raw data would not be released before it was vetted.
Mr. Chagolla suggested the same information could be obtained from the Raidsonline website. Since then, the Independent added the Spotcrime website as a source for MCSO activity in the Sun Cities.
However, according to MCSO Sgt. Joaquin Enriquez, changes requiring vetting of records were last revised more than two years ago.
There was a revision in December 2016 to Policy GF-3, which superseded the last revision in January 2000, according to Mr. Enriquez. In addition, in May 2018 MCSO signed a Compliance Division Operations Manual.
“The contents of this manual provide specific guidance regarding the administrative practices and procedures associated with the compliance division,” he said. “The contents are not intended to supersede or conflict with office policy but only to clarify and define the divisions daily operations.”
He added the public records policy was designed to ensure the proper treatment of public records and establishing standard procedures for the release of those records.
In preparation for articles, the Independent made two open records requests in a Freedom of Information Act letter to MCSO. The first, submitted Jan. 7 through the MCSO media request email address, asked for monthly listings of traffic accidents in Sun City and Sun City West for an article about the most dangerous intersections.
Similar reports were provided last year to the Sun City Home Owners Association Roads and Safety Committee and the PORA of Sun City West Traffic and Safety Committee by District 3 officers in attendance with the instructions they not be shared with anyone.
The Independent was not provided copies of those reports.
“That should not have been done,” Mr. Enriquez said. “If they were provided to the committees, they should have been provided to the media. In any case, unless the information went through the legal section it should not have been provided to the committees.”
The second request to MCSO, submitted Jan. 28 also via the media request email, asked for the salaries of the captain and all lieutenants assigned to the corresponding district for an article comparing compensation for upper management in law enforcement officers and first responders in Northwest Valley communities.
The initial response to each request confirmed MCSO officials were working on it. However, that came with a caveat.
“Please understand that on average it takes 4-8 weeks to process, redact and prepare for release any records that are found in response to requests,” a stock email sent by MCSO’s Ana Gonzales stated. “Some requests, especially for new reports and large requests will take longer than eight weeks.”
In contrast, Independent Newsmedia made requests in FOIA letters Jan. 28 to the Sun City Fire and Medical Department and Arizona Fire & Medical Authority in Sun City West for the salaries of their chiefs and all battalion chiefs. SCFMD responded with the information within 24 hours. AFMA officials, the following day, required Independent Newsmedia to fill out their open records form.
That form was completed and delivered to AFMA officials within 24 hours; however, it was stamped “Received Feb. 13, 2019.” The requested information was received by the Independent shortly thereafter.
The Independent asked Feb. 14 via email about the status of the Jan. 7 MCSO request but received no reply from MCSO officials.
Public record backlog
Responding to a direct request for contact from the Independent, Sgt. Joaquin Enriquez reached out to the newspaper.
In a March 1 telephone call, Mr. Enriquez said MCSO officials were extremely backed up on open records requests, including for body camera footage. He also said requests were processed in the order they are received. Mr. Enriquez said MCSO officials do not release raw data, defining it as any data that has not had legal review.
“All MCSO data may be public record and subject to release but must be reviewed for any applicable redactions,” he stated in an email.
He explained data needs to be reviewed in its entirety for any necessary redactions of personal identifying information or other confidential information that cannot be released. This information would be redacted before release. He added requests are sent for processing as they are received and multiple requests are processed simultaneously.
“The LLS process public records requests, as well as requests from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, Maricopa County Risk Management, other government agencies and requests submitted through subpoena/court order,” Mr. Enriquez stated. “Requests go through several steps (entered into database, records ordered from the proper division, records reviewed for redactions, response drafted for request and supervisor approval) before release. Each request is processed in the order they are received by each step — requests are not processed in their totality before moving onto the next request.”
The Independent sent Mr. Enriquez a series of questions March 7 for an article detailing the sheriff’s office open records request process. Information for both the Jan. 7 accidents and Jan. 28 salaries were received by the Independent March 11.
Mr. Enriquez said the Legal Liaison Section received 372 open records requests in a three-month period from December 2019 through February 2019. He could not provide information on how many requests require redaction or an average time to complete a request.
“The LLS does not track the number of requests in which redactions are required,” he stated. “(It) does not track the average time it takes to complete regardless if redactions are required or not.”
Mr. Enriquez explained requests can vary in processing time depending on the number of requests pending, the location of the records, the volume of material encompassed in the request, the nature of the material being requested and the amount of redaction, if any, that is necessary. Items redacted by the LLS from public records for release include personal identifying information (i.e., home addresses, dates of birth, phone numbers, Social Security numbers), criminal history record information, medical record information, law enforcement sensitive information (i.e., criminal informant information), he added.
“MCSO is always looking to update and modify policy to better serve the community,” Mr. Enriguez said.