Taser records to be released by end of October, police say

Saturday, October 11, 2008 | 4:39 p.m. CDT; updated 11:35 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 11, 2008

COLUMBIA — The Columbia Police Department will release its Taser-use records by the end of the month, but the records won't go directly to the group that asked for them in the first place. Instead, the records are headed to the City Council, where they'll be reviewed and made available to the public free of charge.

Mayor Darwin Hindman decided last week to intervene in the dispute over access to records between the Police Department and Grass Roots Organizing, the Missouri-based advocacy group that requested the records. Hindman announced the plan publicly at Monday's City Council meeting.

Several people involved in the process said it's unusual for the city government to get involved in an open-records request. But Hindman explained his motivation was mostly to resolve the growing conflict between the advocacy group and the Police Department because it threatened to interfere with the department's operations.

Hindman said the information will be useful as he and the council continue to make decisions regarding Tasers.

"It's reasonable information to have," he said. "It's information I'd be interested in for dealing with Taser issues as they come before the council."

Columbia Police Capt. Zim Schwartze, who has been in conversation with the advocacy group since the request was first filed in August, said she was contacted Sept. 30 by City Manager Bill Watkins' office and told to prepare the documents. Schwartze plans to send a paper copy of the requested information to the city manager's office by the end of October, if not sooner. She estimated it will take about33 hours to complete.

In the Police Department's response to Grass Roots Organizing's revised request, Schwartze said because of the staff time involved, the cost for the records would be $883. At the time, Ed Berg, the attorney and Grass Roots Organizing volunteer who filed the requests, asked for the fee to be waived, noting the Sunshine Law permits government entities to release information free of charge when it involves an issue of significant public interest.

"This is probably the fastest way of resolving the issue now," Berg said. "It's probably in the best interest of the public to do it this way."

But, he added, it still leaves open the issue of whether people filing Missouri Sunshine Law requests can get information for free or at a reduced price.

Linda Green, Grass Roots Organizing member and representative of the mid-Missouri chapter of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which has also come out against the expansion of the Taser program, expressed concern about the group getting documents secondhand.

"This threatens to set a precedent whereby groups aren't able to get records unless they appeal to City Council," she said.

The conflict comes as several recent incidents have brought Taser use to the public's attention. The Police Department just finished equipping a group of 41 officers with new Tasers, bringing the department total to 79. And in separate incidents over the summer, one man died following Taser use by Moberly police, and another was seriously injured after Columbia police officers attempted to subdue him with a Taser.

In a revised request sent to the Police Department on Sept. 9, Berg asked for eight pieces of information related to Taser use and policy, including the arrest records of all suspects stunned with a Taser by Columbia police; the number of disciplinary actions filed against officers for violating Taser-use rules; and any forms officers must complete after deploying a Taser.

Schwartze has said repeatedly the records will take a long time to process because the request is the largest the department has received in years. Although most police statistics can be accessed electronically, details from specific cases in this request can only be found only by searching through the paper records, a time-consuming process, she said.

For example, each of the 169 incidents of Taser use since 2005 must be thoroughly reviewed before releasing them to the public, Schwartze said. That means the department must determine when an arrest was made, contact the prosecuting attorney's office to confirm the case has been resolved, make sure the cases are open to the public, and then make copies of all relevant information, Schwartze said.

To add to that, the Police Department gets about 45 to 50 requests for records each day, Schwartze said. Of those, about 15 to 20 are Sunshine Law requests, which take an average of 30 minutes to one hour to complete. The rest of the requests are generally for copies of arrest or incident reports.

The council plans to discuss Taser issues in a pre-council meeting on Oct. 20, said Toni Messina, the city's spokeswoman.

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