City Claims It Will Take 9,000 Hours And $79,000 To Fulfill Gawker's Request Emails Related To Abusive Police Officer

from the we'll-open-our-records-if-you'll-open-your-wallet dept

The McKinney (Texas) Police Department is under lots of outside scrutiny, thanks to the racially-tinged antics of its police force — namely the since-departed Officer Eric Casebolt, who barrel rolled into infamy in a cell phone-captured video that culminated in him pinning down a 14-year-old girl while waving a gun at two teens.

Since that point, multiple entities have filed public records requests with the police department. An interim response given to MuckRock’s Shawn Musgrave lists 61 requests as of June 19th, a number that has certainly increased since that point. One of the early requesters was Gawker’s Andy Cush, who sought “[Officer Eric] Casebolt’s records and any emails about his conduct sent or received by McKinney Police Department employees.”

Cush just received a response from the city’s legal representatives claiming it will cost nearly $80,000 to compile this information.

The city arrived at that extraordinary figure after estimating that hiring a programmer to execute the grueling and complex task of searching through old emails would cost $28.50 per hour, and that the search for emails about Casebolt would take 2,231 hours of said programmer’s time. That only comes to about $63,000; the bill also includes $14,726 “to cover the actual time a computer resource takes to execute a particular program.” In other words, the operating cost of the computer used to search the emails is nearly 15 grand on its own.

Perhaps in an effort to make this stratospherically-high fee appear more reasonable, the law firm broke it all down in table form.

According to the city’s lawyers, this exorbitant estimated fee is due to the police department switching over to a new email system on March 1, 2014. Apparently, every email created before then can’t be searched without hiring a programmer to create a new program from the ground up. Whatever email software the city used prior to this apparently created email in an “unsearchable” format.

This estimate reeks of… well, several things (arrogance, obfuscation…), but mainly of bullshit. I find it hard to believe city personnel are unable to search older emails, especially considering “older” only means “slightly more than a year old,” rather than “stored on punchcards.” It boggles the mind that a move to a new email system would cut several years of emails irrevocably adrift from the rest of the city government’s computing system — or that the city would be fine with a lack of basic search options post-upgrade.

The city is claiming it will take a year of 40-hour work weeks for a programmer to create a search system for pre-2014 emails. Worse, it claims the same even if “an existing system” is used. That may just be boilerplate language for fee estimates, but it also could be closer to the truth than its “one year of programming” claim. No matter which system is used — the “existing” or the bespoke — the city still claims it will still take an unreasonable amount of time to search the system. According to the estimate, it will take roughly three years of 40-hour work weeks to “execute a particular program.”

This appears to be nothing more than an attempt to dissuade requesters from pursuing information about Eric Casebolt or the McKinney Police Department. This “make ’em pay” strategy is as old as open records laws themselves. The city of Ferguson hit a number of journalists with exorbitant fees in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting. The Florida State Attorney’s office told a requester seeking information on the alleged (and highly suspicious) suicide of her daughter that it would cost nearly $180,000 to fulfill her request.

Gawker’s options here are pretty limited. It can either limit its request to post-March 2014 emails as suggested by the city’s lawyers (pretty much useless if seeking a full representation of Eric Casebolt’s career) or it can petition the state attorney general to take a look at the city’s claims.

A person who believes the person has been overcharged for being provided with a copy of public information may complain to the attorney general in writing of the alleged overcharge, setting forth the reasons why the person believes the charges are excessive. The attorney general shall review the complaint and make a determination in writing as to the appropriate charge for providing the copy of the requested information.

This particular avenue of recourse has been used frequently in the past. A 2012 examination of Texas open records requests by the Center for Public Integrity found McKinney ranked highest in the state in the number of fee complaints to the state attorney general (per 100,000 residents). Not all of these were fee-related, but the ratio of referred requests suggests the local government is more reluctant to turn over responsive documents than its neighbors. A spokeswoman for the city notes in the article that requests related to the police department are treated with “an overabundance of caution.” This response to Gawker, however, seems not so much cautious as confrontational — a “shut up and go away” response in the form of a thoroughly ridiculous $79,000 price tag.

I have reached out to the city employees listed in the letter to Gawker, asking for details on the current and pre-2014 email systems, as well as any methods used by city employees to access older emails. I’m not expecting an answer, but if one should materialize, it will be passed on.

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Comments on “City Claims It Will Take 9,000 Hours And $79,000 To Fulfill Gawker's Request Emails Related To Abusive Police Officer”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Clear as a slap to the face

The only way they could have been more blatant with their ‘Screw you, we’re the city and you get nothing’ request would be to personally have the mayor and/or chief of police for the city visit the offices of those who sent the request to laugh and flip them off.

They’re not even pretending that they answer to the public here, I imagine the only reason they even responded at all was for a laugh.

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

You are sh!tting me!

2231 hours to do a database query? Or search a raft of server files? Heck, if I couldn’t do it in 20 hours (2 1/2 days), I would not be earning my keep, which is about $70 / hour as a contractor on a W2 basis. Computer clock time of 6694 hours? Don’t be absurd! Do do all of this would take about 1 hour of CPU time, and probably 2-3 days of engineering time. WHAT RIP OFFS!

MrTroy (profile) says:

Re: You are sh!tting me!

I suspect you may be underestimating just how bad the previous (or current) system may be, and how long it would take to even get signoff to get access to the old servers, or to find out who actually knows which box the tape backups containing the pre-2014 emails might be sitting in.

Still, a year of full-time work sounds pretty outrageous, and 9 months of 24×7 computation is completely unreasonable. As mentioned below, they should require their own access to search their old emails for any number of reasons, claiming they do not have such is just negligence!

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: You are sh!tting me!

I suspect you may be underestimating just how bad the previous (or current) system may be, and how long it would take to even get signoff to get access to the old servers, or to find out who actually knows which box the tape backups containing the pre-2014 emails might be sitting in.

It’s hard to imagine how it could take 2200 hours even if someone did it manually, let alone writing a program to do it. It’s just a relatively small police department, not the IRS or something.

With that said, I’d do it for 63 grand. 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

Sign me up to be that programmer. Probably a weeks worth of work… if the existing information is in some radical format, two weeks. If it’s encrypted and there are no decryption keys, well, then it’s pretty much impossible (unless the encryption is poor and easily cracked with rainbow tables or something). I’ll even do it for half that price, it’ll be a steal for the city at only $30k for a week or two of my time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: holy crap

the military has already proven they will not take up arms against unarmed american citizens but the police are more than willing to gun down unarmed unresisting people day after day.

Who needs the military to enforce brutal martial law when you have a police force that has been allowed to do what they want ignore all laws they want to and are essentially treated as above the law by their government.

the military scored fairly negative on their litimus test if they would open fire on unarmed American citizens but as I said the police are more than willing to do that day after day.

Deon says:

Public Records Request on old System

How about a public records request for the Name, version and Patch level of the old email system.

as it has been obsoleted it is not a current investigatory tool and and not a public records exception, knowing the old email system will allow for an understanding and rebuttal of the ‘estimated’ costs of searching old emails.

two if any emails are required for court appearances from prior to 2014 , some court cases go on for years and they must have a way of accessing those emails, then it will show they have the tools to find and access those emails again providing a rebuttal against costs.

DigDug says:

Incompetent programmers and systems I'd say...

If that were even within 10% of accurate, I’d say they hired ignoramuses to write code for 300 baud modem connected Apple II+ computers.

Hell, even running 286 or early 386 model computers could handle that task in under 30 minutes.

Maybe if they weren’t overloading the file servers with their porn collections, it would have time to run what should be a maximum of a 2 hour process to dump every e-mail to and from said officer.

Stoatwblr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Option 2: Shame

He already quit.

And in all liklihood has been rehired somewhere else.

Quitting allows bad cops to change location with no further penalties.

Tracking him may well become difficult and should his new employers (the city, not the cops there) become aware of his history after he’s hired, it may well prove nearly impossible to get rid of him until he pulls another inexcusable stunt in front of cameras.

Anonymous Coward says:

In my opinion its a two pronged f*** you to all requesters.

First: make a reasonable simple search hideously expensive
Second: delay any response for at least two years. 1 year for a programmer to make up a “tool” and then let it run for 9 months. Expect the programmer to get sick and to go on mandated vacation and the computer resources crashing and needing to be replaced and updated.
And in 3 years you can get your FOIA anwser: “No responsive records found.”

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

Public Records Laws Vary by State

The laws in Texas may not be the laws we are used to in Florida. Each state has its own law; I think there are a few which modeled their law on Florida.

Such a request for money also happens in Florida, but occasionally the records-seeker is referred to the First Amendment Foundation. There is case law concerning reasonableness of charges in Florida.

Our problem is that, every year, the legislature enacts some tens of new exemptions. They now number over a thousand. My favorite example is a campaign treasurer’s report which redacted the address of the campaign treasurer. It was probably perfectly legal under the statute.

Another exemption says you can no longer review records to see if your city manager or other high-level officials live in the city they govern.

Joe K says:

Novelist, programmer, same difference...

The city is claiming it will take a year of 40-hour work
weeks for a programmer to create a search system for pre-2014

Ah, nothing like a nice refreshing bullshit float, is there?

No. At least tell me they’re employing a novelist to retroactively
write their non-existent backups.

Then the numbers would make a little sense.

Anonymous Coward says:

An entirely ordinary and typical respose from a law firm representing a municipality where the law firm has been directed by a municipal official explicitly or implicitly to slow-roll the matter. The exorbitant charges will eventually be dropped, but only after time has passed to lessen the newsworthiness of whatever is turned over.

BTW, if new software really is needed to enable searching of records, that is something that should already be underway as a project divorced from the document request so that the municipality remains in compliance with statutory requirements.

jilocasin (profile) says:

Files, what files, we don't need no stinkin files here....

Naw… Here’s what actually happened…..

Old email system is going offline so;

* Print out all old emails on thermal fax paper.

* Format all old hard drives

* Destroy all old backup tapes (we are going to a new system don’t you know.)

Now some dunderhead wants copies of the old emails. So this entails:

* Pay someone to find those rolls of printed thermal paper.

* Pay some one to scan them back into a computer
— Find a scanner to actually scan the roll of paper.

* Pay a programmer to parse the gargantuan image into separate records.

* Pay a programmer to write a program to OCR the scans of badly and inconsistently faded thermal paper (this is Texas after all)

* Pay a programmer to design a database, and write the program to populate the database with the above processed data.

* Pay a lawyer to vet the results of that search.

* Pay for the time for the police chief, the union boss, and anyone else with a vested interest to suggest things to redact.

* Pay for the responsive records to be printed out, marked up with black redacting ink and then scanned back into image files.

***Collect the fees and deliver the CD-ROM containing images of the responsive documents.

See, with all that work, $80,000 is a bargin.

Coyoty (profile) says:

“People are getting wise to our shaking down the black population for fines and fees.”
“Maybe we can create an incident and charge the media thousands for FOI requests.”
“Better yet, let’s insist on building an expensive and unwieldyy new system to handle the requests and return useless results. We can call it Deep Thought.”
“I think that name was taken. But let’s keep Deep in the name. It’ll be called Deep something.”
“And then we can claim we need to build a bigger more expensive system to interpret the nonsense data from that Deep bullcrap.”
“Great! This’ll keep us rolling in revenue forever! Casebolt, go pull a black girl’s hair or something.”

Tom Bortels says:

Wildly Inflated

As has been mentioned – that’s wildly inflated. This isn’t mystic sorcery – it’s computers. Realistically, this is a few day job for anyone competent, a week at the outside if their system is really crufty; hell, it gets easier if it’s older (within limits), because less data. And if it *is* off-the-shelf – which is likely the case – then it’s a day or so. Disgusting.

I was gonna say “Hell, I’ll do it for free” – but I got beat to it, plus – Texas. They shoot people there. Often.

What should happen is grab an expert technical witness, and hold them to the grindstone and make either perjury (if this was submitted under oath) or extortion/blackmail/fraud/contempt charges. Then bring in new management of both the city and police force, because this all smells of conspiracy and collusion.

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