Easy assignment: At the request of the Montana Newspaper Association (MNA), the Independent was asked to request a report from the Missoula Police Department as part of a Freedom of Information Act audit. The law states anyone—journalists, non-journalists, even you—can obtain criminal justice information upon request. The only catch is the city may charge a "reasonable fee."
Sounds simple enough, save for the brick wall that appears in the form of steely-eyed and khaki clad "records specialists" inside the department.
When a staff writer requested two reports last Thursday—both documenting a June 30 incident involving a 75-year-old man arrested for felony assault—all the writer received was a cold shoulder camouflaged in earth tones. In order to obtain the information, the paper would have to pay $22 for a report and provide the man's date of birth.
"Without this information [the date of birth], I don't know if we have a report," said Jennifer, the woman working the police department's front desk who refused to give her last name.
Huh? Staff writers have experienced trouble the past couple months shaking out public records, but we've never heard these specific requirements before.
Needless to say, our writer didn't have the cash (in this economy?) or the man's birth date (how could the writer know?). More importantly, none of this seemed to fit the letter of the law.
"They can't charge you $22," said attorney Mike Meloy with Montana's Freedom of Information Hotline. "That's patently just illegal."
John Barrows, executive director of the MNA, also added his two cents about the 22 bucks.
"It appears to be there simply to discourage the public from asking for such information," he said.
Days after this surprisingly frustrating—and ultimately unresolved—encounter, Police Chief Mark Muir called our reporter, unsolicited, to hash out the issue. The Indy has always found Muir, as well as the department's media liaisons, extremely forthcoming with information, and this was no different. He chalked the whole thing up to a new employee and a miscommunication and, low and behold, hours later we received notice that the documents we requested were now available. We never had to provide a birth date (it wasn't even included in the report), but the department still wanted $22 for two pages of information.
This "easy" assignment turned out to be anything but, and we don't expect the issue to be resolved any time soon. The Independent will continue to find ways to work around the system, but the public should be aware that the system currently appears, at the very least, flawed and inconsistent.