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WPD drops policy requiring records requests to share info internally with city departments

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Even though public records law doesn’t apply to the internal sharing of documents, the Wilmington Police Department asked city departments to file requests through the clerk’s office, saying it wanted to prevent employees from “requesting information for personal means.”

The Wilmington Police Department has changed its 11-month-old policy of requiring other city departments to file formal public records requests to receive police data. The policy shift comes after an apparent disagreement between the city’s communication department, Clerk’s Office, and WPD.

Public records requests are sometimes, but not always, required before a government agency or entity will turn over public documents to the media or public — but the state statute that governs them does not apply to internal communication within a city, county, or other entity.

According to WPD, “[i]n an effort to be as efficient as possible, [the policy] was a recommendation by the City Clerk’s Office to try and keep track of all requests for our department both internally and externally.”

The policy was also intended to prevent city employees from requesting information for personal use, according to WPD. Asked if this had actually occurred, WPD said the policy was proactive or preventative.

It's worth noting that, while asking city employees to file a public record request in order to receive documents from WPD might take more time, it would not be affected by the reason for the request. According to the state's public record law, "[n]o person requesting to inspect and examine public records, or to obtain copies thereof, shall be required to disclose the purpose or motive for the request."

Disagreement over policy

The issue over WPD’s policy seems to have come to a head when the city’s communication department set out to create a public service announcement for National Stop on Red Week, which aims to help prevent traffic incidents caused by running red lights.

According to internal City of Wilmington emails, an employee from the city’s communications department asked the police department for data “regarding red light violations or red light-related crashes in the city the past year,” with the intent of using that information to create social media PSA posts.

In response, a member of WPD’s own communications staff wrote “[w]e can pull that info but for records purposes we need you to fill out this PRR form first please,” and provided a link to the City Clerk’s public record request form webpage.

The city’s communication director, Jerod Patterson, then got involved, responding in an email that copied the city attorney and read, in part:

“I invite the City Attorney to correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I don’t believe it falls under public records when one city department asks for data from another department. You should simply be able to pass the data. We don’t need to unnecessarily add to the already high volume of public records being processed.”

Through a series of forwards and replies, City Clerk Peny Spicer-Sidbury responded, “this is the process that WPD has in place.”

She then addressed Patterson, writing, “JEROD — While it may not be necessary and since I handle public records requests, I am respecting the process that WPD has in place.”

After one or more conversations that were not represented by city emails, the policy was changed.

New policy going forward

Asked about these emails, Patterson wrote, “[s]ubmitting a City Clerk public record request form was the police department’s process for that request but will not be the process moving forward. Sharing information between departments does not require a public record process.”

According to the WPD, the policy “has recently been revamped/modified by Chief Donny Williams. For all internal requests, the department heads need to contact Chief Williams and then their requests will be forwarded to the WPD PR team and copy the City Clerk.”

As confirmed by the city – and state statute – public records law does not require legal requests to be made for sharing documents between departments within a government entity like a city, county, or public utility.

Public records law does not prevent government entities from releasing some public documents without a formal request — and local government bodies, like New Hanover County, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, and the New Hanover County Schools district, routinely release public documents to the media or the public without requiring a PRR. Currently, it is the Wilmington City Clerk’s policy that no city department, including the communication department, may release documents to the public without going through the Clerk’s office.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.