RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) -
The Richmond Police Department has shifted its policy that some argue limits access to public records and information the public has a right to know.
The Freedom of Information Act or FOIA guarantees access to public records but Richmond Police recently started charging for every records request made to the department, regardless of how small, how basic or how easy to it is access.
The fees makes our job at 8News of providing you important information harder and more importantly, it makes it more difficult for everyday people to access information they might want to know. Some argue the new fees go against the police chief's vow to be more transparent.
Richmond Police Chief Ray Tarasovic told multiple media outlets last year when he first took over a chief that the city would "have an accessible police chief and an accessible police department."
Today if you you want to know how many accidents have happened at that intersection near your home or a report of a shooting on your street and basic public records are now information you'll have to pay for. Richmond Police is now even charging the media for mug shots.
Paul Fletcher, publisher and editor in chief of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, is very familiar with FOIA law.
We shared with him the Richmond Police Department's FOIA policy, which 8News had to pay $7.20 to get a copy of.
"That might be a stopper for someone," he says. "They might say 'I don't really feel like paying that. I give up' and that is when you start to lose transparency."
But Fletcher says Richmond Police's policy which reads "shall charge" is within the law.
"I am surprised you got charged to find out what the policy is," he says. "The law is they are entitled to charge a reasonable fee."
No other jurisdiction in the region charges for information that's should be easy to access like mug shots and incident reports. In fact, some departments like the Virginia Supreme Court set a threshold of $7 and waive the fee for anything less than that. But according to Richmond Police's policy, the fees for these basic public records will range from $1-$8.
Rick Tatnall with Better Government Richmond says while the fees may be minimal it goes against openness.
"It is contrary to transparency," he says.
Tatnall points out billing the public for every FOIA request could end up costing taxpayers more in the long run.
"The time it would take to determine that something should be charged, what would be charged might take more time than it would actually take to get the information in the first place."
8News reached out to the Mayor's Office for comment on the new fees and were told that Richmond Police is not under the direction of the Mayor's Office but when we told the mayor's press secretary other departments set a threshold for charging a fee, she told us that she "liked the idea of a dollar threshold" and that she "will explore the idea."
8News made several requests to sit down with the police chief to discuss the department's FOIA policy. The department declined our request for an interview. But late Monday afternoon, we were sent a clarification of Richmond Police's FOIA policy. We've been told it was discovered in a FOIA training that the police department's media relations unit had not been charging a processing fee for FOIA requests, so these fees are to bring the department in compliance with city policy.
To read the full copy of the FOIA policy, click here
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