Survey finds Md. police agencies are in higher realm for public records fees
While many governments across Maryland charge 25 or 50 cents a page for copies of public documents, police departments’ fees are several times as much.
Police commonly require $5 or $10 for copies of accident or incident reports, even for a single page.
Fees run higher in Baltimore County, which charges $15, and Salisbury in Wicomico County, which charges $20.
The flat fee in Sykesville in Carroll County — $25 for a report regardless of the number of pages — was the steepest among more than three dozen departments reviewed in a Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association project.
Maryland’s Public Information Act does not mandate specific fees for government bodies in providing records. Instead, the law says they may charge a “reasonable” fee, “bearing a reasonable re- lationship to the recovery of actual costs incurred by a governmental unit.”
Without further dictates, though, government bodies and agencies at all levels are on their own in setting fee schedules. Police departments routinely consider accident and incident reports in a different universe than other documents made available for lower fees.
Almost all of the 39 police agencies included in a recent Maryland- Delaware- D. C. Press Association survey charge at least $5 for an accident report, an incident report or both.
The Calvert County Sheriff’s Office charges $10 for an accident report, $2 per page for a reconstruction report, $5 for a criminal report of up to five pages and $2 for each additional page beyond that. It also charges $10 fo r a video
CD and $1 for a photo.
In neighboring Charles County, the sheriff’s office charges $8 for the first 10 pages of a report and 50 cents for each additional page, but fees are either reduced or waived for domestic violence victims, inmates and the indigent. St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office charges a flat $5 fee per incident or accident report across the board, unless the individual requesting the report is the crime victim, in which case there is no charge.
In contrast, among 25 local governments and state agencies surveyed separately about their general copy fees for records — unrelated to their police department — none charges more than 50 cents per page. About half charge 25 cents a page.
Six of those governments say they start with free copies of records, including up to 40 pages at no charge in Rockville in Montgomery County.
The MDDC focus on police agency fees — particularly for paper records — included 12 of the state’s 23 counties plus Baltimore city and 22 of the state’s 83 municipal police agencies.
Of the county agencies surveyed, half charged $5 or less. One charged at least $15. Of the municipal agencies surveyed, only one charged more than $10. Ten charged $10 and seven charged $5. The town of Sykesville stood alone in charging as much as $25.
Sykesville Police Chief Michael Spaulding said his department’s fee was $15 before he became chief five years ago. The town raised the fee to $25 about a year ago, but will waive it for “someone who is down and out,” he said. Still, he said, “we don’t want to be at the top of that list.”
While Sykesville and others impose a flat fee, other departments charge based on the number of pages.
Journalists across Maryland participated in the two-month MDDC examination of police departments.
The findings were timed for publication during Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide focus on the importance of public information which this year runs through March 16. The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are coordinating the week, which started with Sunshine Sunday on March 10.
A few police departments surveyed have policies with lower fees.
Frostburg police in Allegany County do not charge for a report of up to 12 pages unless the request is “commercial.” Often, those paying for accident and incident reports across the state are attorneys and insurance companies, which consider the fees part of the cost of business.
Maryland Natural Resources Police is another example. They provide the first 10 pages for free, then charge 25 cents a page after that.
Many departments make accommodations, giving free copies of reports to crime victims or, as required by state law, to people who can’t afford to pay.
The Public Information Act also allows a waiver if information is in public interest. Under this consideration, some agencies don’t charge journalists for copies of records.
While Baltimore County police raised their fee a few years ago for a report, from $10 to $15, the Hagerstown Police Department in Washington County took the opposite step, lowering its fee.
The cost of an accident report in Hagerstown was $5 for the first four pages and $1 for each additional page. Now, an accident report is free for someone who picks it up in person or gets an electronic copy. The department adds a charge for postage if the person asks for a copy by mail.
Hagerstown Police Chief Paul Kifer said the department talked to a city attorney and re-evaluated what it charges, seeking a fair policy.
The cost remains $5 for up to four pages for an incident report, which Kifer said is likely to require more attention to redact sensitive information than an accident report. The cost per additional page is 25 cents.
“The majority of people can come up with $5,” Kifer said. If they can’t, the department waives the fee.
“It’s about being fair and open and transparent,” he said.
Many police departments said they believe their fee policy meets the “reasonable” standard, often citing the need to recoup labor costs, particularly time spent redacting private or sensitive information.
However, the Public Information Act doesn’t allow a charge for the first two hours of filling a request. Some departments get around that by charging a flat fee for a request.
After raising its fee from $10 to $15, the Baltimore County Police Department has one of the highest for an incident or accident report. Cpl. Shawn Vinson, a department spokesman, said the fee is justifiable, “knowing the amount of work that goes into it.”
He said it can take several hours to review a report before it can be copied and released. Baltimore County police do not give out a date of birth, the identity of a juvenile who might face punishment, details of medical treatment, exact addresses or vehicle identification numbers.
Under the Public Information Act, after two free hours devoted to filling a request, a government body may charge for labor based on the salary of the employee doing the work. Agencies must calculate costs based on “each individual’s salary and actual time” connected to the response.
Baltimore County breaks the cost down that way. Top hourly scale is $60 for attorneys and managers, followed by $50 for police officers, $35 for other positions and $15 for seasonal employees.
For the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office, the hourly labor charge is $28. It’s $15 an hour for the Westminster Police Department.
The Anne Arundel County Police Department charges a $21 “report retrieval” fee for archived reports.
The largest law enforcement agency in the state, Maryland State Police, charges a $4 flat fee to search for an accident report, even if none is found.
Maryland Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Hochstetler, who works on public records issues, said he could not comment on PIA practices for this story.
In 2015, the state created an ombudsman position to mediate disputes between requesters and agencies over public records requests. Mediation is voluntary.
Lisa Kershner, the ombudsman, declined to comment about specific fees and policies.
The Public Information Act Compliance Board, which also was created in 2015, plays a different role. The board — for which Hochstetler is legal counsel — hears and rules on formal complaints in which someone challenges when a government charges at least $350 to fill a request. The board may order a public body to reduce or refund a fee. Complaints about unreasonable fees are specific to that situation.
In November 2016, the board found that when Baltimore County police charged $2 a page for records in one case, it was a “reasonable fee.” The department filled a request by providing 1,810 pages of records (of which 184 were redacted) and 33 compact discs, for a total of $4,554.
“Nonetheless,” the board said, “we advise that custodians who charge flat per-page fees must be able to show that the flat rate reflects the actual costs of producing the records.”
When PIA issues come before the state legislature, legislation likely would come before the House Health and Government Operations Committee and the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Committee. Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-Howard), who chairs the House committee, said the discrepancy issue has not come before her committee and she was not aware of it.
She said public records fees should be based on actual costs, and suggested that someone dissatisfied with a fee challenge it with that government body.
Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the Senate committee, expressed more concern and interest in the issue when it was described to him. He said he was surprised police departments were charging higher fees, particularly $15 in Baltimore County, which he called a “big leap” from what other government bodies charge. He asked for more information so his office could investigate and decide whether it’s worth legislation in the current session or next year “if it’s being abused.”
This graph shows how much a two-page accident report would cost at 20 different police departments across the state.