As one of the city’s top law enforcement officials, New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Ronal Serpas should know one can’t simply pick and choose which laws to obey.
But that’s exactly what Serpas is doing in connection with public records requests made to his department.
A recent Advocate story chronicled numerous cases in which the NOPD failed to comply with the Louisiana Public Records Law, which is supposed to guarantee citizens swift access to public documents generated by state and local government agencies and public bodies.
State law requires that custodians of public records answer such requests within three days, but Tabitha Nelson waited six months before suing Serpas late last year.
Other citizens and media outlets have reported similar problems in getting NOPD records. Requesters who are denied timely access to public records can sue in an attempt to secure their release, but citizens shouldn’t have to undertake costly and time-consuming litigation to get basic information about the how government is doing its job.
The Louisiana Public Records Law also allows for fines and jail time for custodians of public records who fail to follow the law. As a matter of practice, those penalties are almost never imposed on public officials who violate the Public Records Law, but they should be.
The need for transparency within the NOPD is especially urgent because of the department’s serious problems. The department is under a federal consent decree meant to remedy widespread abuses in its operations.
True and lasting reform of the NOPD can’t easily happen if taxpayers cannot have a clear view of how the department is being managed.
That’s why those responsible for the NOPD, including Serpas and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, should make sure that the department follows the Louisiana Public Records Law.