The Right to Know: How to Fulfill the Public's Right of Access to Police Records
Democracy depends on the public's right to know what its government is doing, so it can hold officials accountable. California voters recognized the fundamental importance of public access to documents by enshrining the right of access in the state constitution. But the right of access does not always work smoothly in practice.
Too often, people who request records from their local police departments receive responses stating that due to a "backlog of records requests" or "shortage of personnel," their requests will not be promptly addressed as required by law. Others receive no response at all. Such violations of the right of access generate costly litigation in the forms of both individual California Public Records Act ("CPRA") enforcement actions and pattern and practice suits challenging systemic failures to provide access.
Access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.
— California Public Records Act, Gov’t Code § 6250
Both the California Constitution and the CPRA mandate that agencies provide the public access to records, and neither law relieves a government agency of the obligation to respond to public records requests because it so poorly handled past requests that it developed a backlog. If agencies lack the staffing, technology, or training to ensure timely public access to their records, state and local governments have a duty to allocate resources for that purpose. In most cases, however, agencies will be able to fulfill the public's right of access with existing resources by removing information bottlenecks that require them to spend unnecessary time and expense on responding to records requests.
This guide focuses on the ways that law enforcement agencies unnecessarily obstruct the flow of public information — and the steps they can take to dismantle the barriers to public access they put up. But California agencies of all kinds can take similar steps to conduct "the people's business" in an open and accountable way.