The Madison Police Department strives to adhere to policy and purpose of the WI Public Records Law:
"...that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them," and "providing citizens with information on the affairs of government is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees whose responsibility it is to provide such information." (19.31)
The Madison Police Records Section responds to hundreds of records requests every week. This includes requests for data, reports, and media (photos/video). Requests come from other government agencies, businesses, insurance companies, attorneys, news organizations, and citizens. While it would be faster and easier to release records in their entirety to whomever might want them, there are certain records that are protected for various reasons. Every request the Police Records Department receives must be reviewed by a Records Custodian before it can be released in order to ensure that protected information remains protected. This takes time, especially as volume and complexity of requests increase.
Without thoroughly summarizing the WI Public Records statutes, there are exceptions to the presumed openness of government records. Such records include:
- Juvenile records
- Medical records (HIPPA)
- Investigations where release of records may hamper the ongoing investigation
- Investigations associated with pending criminal prosecution
- Law Enforcement Informants
- Sensitive personal/private information
When a record is requested, it must be reviewed for any of the above-listed content and more. A balancing test is employed to determine whether the reasons for nondisclosure outweigh the public interest in disclosure, taking into consideration laws which either require or prohibit release of records.
Each record that is requested must undergo a thorough review by the Records Custodian. While most police reports are subject to public release, almost all contain information that would be protected by redaction in response to a public request (most commonly, personally identifiable information). For example, a theft report may be released to the public, but the victim's date of birth, private phone number, and home address may be redacted because release of that information could facilitate identity theft crimes or further victimization, counter-indicating the public interest in crime prevention. A report involving juveniles, sensitive crimes such as sexual assault or stalking, or confidential informants or undercover operations may require significantly more redaction, if released. Video and audio recordings are subject to the same review and scrutiny.
If a report from a potentially active case is requested, the Records Custodian may need to consult the case detective or assigned officer to determine the status of the investigation and whether the investigation may be compromised by making the records public. If a case has been referred to the District Attorney (DA), the Records Custodian may need to consult the assigned Assistant District Attorney (ADA) to determine whether release of reports could jeopardize prosecution or influence witness testimony.
The Madison Police Department has two positions whose role is to review records full-time. There are three other staff members who are able to allot limited time to review records as other job duties allow. To give you a comparison...Milwaukee PD receives around the same number of record requests we do and they devote 6 full-time and one part-time staff members to review such records. The Kenosha Police and Sheriff Department have 3 staff members reviewing their records requests and they receive a significantly fewer amount of records requests (7,315 in 2013 compared to our almost 30,000 we received in that same year). So as you can see, we are pretty short-staffed when comparing us to other departments. We hope to be able to add staff to this area in the future.
Currently, it may take up to 4 weeks to receive a requested police report or video due to the necessary review process and the limited staff available to review requests. In the past, the delay has been even longer. The Records Department acknowledges that this is a long time to wait for a report, and is making continuous efforts to shorten the wait time in several ways.
The Madison Police Department no longer maintains the DOT MV4000s (accident reports), so those may be acquired directly from DOT. To request a DOT MV4000, please visit https://app.wi.gov/crashreports.
Generally, requests are reviewed in the order that they are received; however, if the requestor has a deadline such as a court date or insurance claim, reviewers will make every effort to honor that date. (Unfortunately, not every request can be first in line, and reviewers must balance urgent requests with those that have been waiting.)
The Records Department has also enlisted the help of light-duty police officers to help alleviate the backlog of requests. This has been extremely helpful in "catching up," but it is also not a permanent solution.
Law Enforcement Agencies are required to log all records requests. Requestors may contact Records to find out the status of their request or to give Records staff updates on court dates in the case that a request becomes more (or less) urgent.
It is the goal of the Madison Police Department to fulfill all records requests in a timely manner.
Authored by MPD Records Program Assistant Kelly Giessinger.