Once upon a time, University of Miami students could go online to the Coral Gables Police Department website and search for incident reports as easily as they stalk their frenemies on Facebook. Simply search for a name, date, or location and a batch of relevant reports would sprout up. Gory details, home addresses, and arresting officer narratives were just a click away.
It almost seemed too good to be true, and then it was.
With one of the most open public records laws in the country, Florida opens all public records (including police reports) to any schmuck who bothers to request them. And if for some reason the public records clerk can not release the file (like if it’s an open investigation for instance), he or she must cite the exact statute prohibiting it.
But let me just say, as an unpaid intern for a news weekly, I do my fair share of public records requests (and then some, and then some more, and then even some in pouring rain in a white blouse with no umbrella). I’ve been (multiple times) to Fort Lauderdale’s records department, the City of West Park’s records department, and the Justice Building under the 836 in Miami. And while these might be “open” public records laws, it’s still an ordeal to wait for the records to be ready, and then drive to these buildings, chat up the soulless records clerks so they’re nice to you, and pay for the documents.
But the Coral Gables records department was a model in effortless public records requests for unpaid interns everywhere, and made writing a student crime blog pretty easy.
That is, until this past summer when the city of Coral Gables changed their policy: Police reports now must be picked up in person from the records department and are no longer available online.
At first I wanted to cry because I recently enrolled in a news blogging class, and my blog was premised on this particular instant access to records since it was a student arrest blog. I sent a flustered email to my journalism professor from last semester that introduced me to the records search and asked him to explain this issue, assuming it was a technological glitch on my end or theirs.
But it wasn’t.
Now students must write down the report number of the incident they want to know more about and submit a request to the records department off Miracle Mile. While this seems easy enough, the records department in Coral Gables is understaffed, and there is an overbearing sergeant that must review each request to determine it isn’t an open investigation.
Over a week ago I sent a request for a few campus arrests I wanted to write about for this blog and left messages for every phone call that rang to voicemail (which was every single time I called since every hour seems to be lunch hour over there). I didn’t hear back until yesterday. And when I did, the officer on the other end didn’t have good news: almost a week later my request was still being processed and Mr. Overbearing Sergeant had to look over the files before handing them over to me.
The cause for this change was sensitive private information being readily available to the general public. Even though I didn’t know of anyone who regularly refreshed the virtual crime blotter to exploit student mishaps as I intended to do, many UM students (and their well-to-do parents) did not appreciate their misdemeanor pot possession files available to so many prying fingertips –that would make expunging their records when they graduated futile and leave Little Johnny in bad shape to land a job and even consider paying off those triple-digit student debt loans.
However, I didn’t mind the open records. Maybe because now that I’m an unpaid intern, I don’t have time to sit by the lake and smoke a bowl l
ike I used to. Or maybe now that I’m 21, I no longer chug all the available booze I can get my hands on and pass out from alcohol poisoning before midnight. I also don’t live on campus anymore.
And since I haven’t been bumming around Coral Gables long enough to get arrested, maybe that’s why I can’t understand the reason for wanting tighter restrictions. But this little change of policy really puts an unnecessary rain cloud on my bad-ass student crime blog.
I’m not deterred. I’ll still request these annoying files and go through all the bureaucratic hoops. I’ll wait however long the City of Coral Gables makes me, even if that means living in the police department lobby until I finally get my hands on them.