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Public Information Comes At A Price In Arlington

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Getting information from Arlington County Police comes at a cost. On the left is a cost estimate of $31.16 for a six-line summary of a report police officials refuse to release. On the right is a cost estimate of $573.25 for all the Freedom of Information Act requests the police department received in a year.
Michael Pope
Getting information from Arlington County Police comes at a cost. On the left is a cost estimate of $31.16 for a six-line summary of a report police officials refuse to release. On the right is a cost estimate of $573.25 for all the Freedom of Information Act requests the police department received in a year.

Arlington County Police officials are willing to share some information some of the time, but it comes at a cost.

Want a mug shot of a government official? That's $24.

Arlington police officials refuse to release a 2009 report clearing several Fairfax County officers after they shot and killed an unarmed teenager. But if you want a six-line summary of that report? That will be $31.16.

"I've done some, for example, that are $5.40," says Arlington County Police Internal Affairs Commadner David Dailey. "Every criminal incident summary is different because it depends on how in-depth the case is."

Arlington uses its discretion to withhold documents and bill by the minute. Copies of all the public-records requests submitted in a 12-month period? The cost estimate is $573.25. The charge was for 10 hours of staff time at an hourly rate of $57.35 per hour.

"It's not the amount of time it takes to write. You have to research it, and you have find the case folder, and you have to go through it, and you have to summarize it. So it's staff time," Dailey says.

But Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, thinks those estimates are overblown.

"It should not take hours for a staff person to retrieve this," Blanton says. "It should be a part of their ordinary business, a couple of minutes of retrieval." 

Dailey says the county's goal is to comply with FOIA. "Our goal is to be transparent," Dailey says. He insists the police department meets its transparency goals, even while withholding some documents and charging for others.

Across Virginia, very few details are available to the public about crime that happens every day. From petty larceny to murder, Virginia police officials routinely deny access to basic documents such as incident reports, regardless of whether a case is open or closed. Claire Gastañaga is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

"The refusal to provide access to closed investigative files in these kinds of circumstances creates a lack of trust in the department," Gastañaga say. "And I think police agencies ought to be concerned about that."

Arlington police have amended the aforementioned policy on mug shots, and they now say they will provide booking photos free of charge. The investigation into the death of the unarmed teenager remains secret. Arlington County is the only agency in Northern Virginia to charge for the staff time necessary to create a summary of documents they refuse to release.

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Michael Pope is also a reporter with the Connection Newspapers who provides special coverage of Northern Virginia for WAMU 88.5. His story for the Connection can be found at ArlingtonConnection.com.

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