Next time you want to get information about crime in your neighborhood, it will likely cost you. Just recently and without explanation, the Richmond Police Department decided to enforce a policy, which means its public affairs department will now charge to give out all data.
The issue surrounds the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which lets citizens get information from the government. The law allows agencies to charge for those records, but up until now RPD has given certain documents for free. Now, officials are making a change, which comes about a year after Chief Ray Tarasovic promised transparency in his administration.
Things are getting bad in the city, according to South Side neighborhood crime watch organizer John Ellis. "A lot of my people are elders and they're scared," he explained.
Ellis regularly needs information from the police department to help keep his neighbors safe. He calls the new enforcement of the FOIA charges ridiculous.
"That's something that should be furnished to us free of charge," Ellis said. "We shouldn't have to pay for what's going on in our city, let alone our neighborhoods!"
The other police departments in our area do not charge for the records Richmond Police have indicated they'll now be invoicing. The policy we obtained shows costs ranging from $1 to $8 for each records request. It lists inquiries like photographs and incident reports. Ellis thinks this shouldn't happen in a city like Richmond with such a high poverty level.
"I call the police anytime that I see anything wrong being done," Ellis added. "I help them and now they want to charge me?"
In media reports Tarasovic has said the city will have an accessible chief. A Richmond Times Dispatch article from the week he was appointed reads, "'I'm a transparent person,' Tarasovic said... 'I believe in sunshine, and I think we will shine in the sun,' Tarasovic added, referring to transparency."
"This is clearly not consistent with that promise," government watchdog Paul Goldman explained. "It's less sunshine, not more; there's no sunshine."
We have made multiple requests for an explanation as to why the department is doing this. NBC12 repeatedly asked for an interview with the police chief and even contacted the mayor's press secretary, but all of those requests have been denied.
"You're entitled to discuss a new policy but if you want it to succeed, you should be able to present to the public a credible, persuasive reason," Goldman added. "If you can't do it, maybe that should tell you it's a bad idea."
Just before news time Monday, Richmond Police sent us a document called "Clarification on the City's and RPD's FOIA policies." It explains this issue came up during a city-conducted FOIA training session and maintains the fees are something all of the internal departments do.
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