Resident Officer Programs: One of These Things is Not Like the Others

**UPDATE 11/24** Via email, the city still maintains that the redaction “facially” applied to its FOIA response. However:

[A]fter further discussion with the Police Department, we believe that the Resident Officer Program’s mission is furthered by engaging with the public wherever possible, and where doing so does not endanger public or officer safety. Accordingly, the City is providing an un-redacted copy of the record at issue as per your request.

Whether or not I would have prevailed in the state’s review of the redaction, the reversal is a good reminder that most exceptions to FOIA — assuming they’re properly applied — are allowed but not commanded.

The City of Elgin has a nationally recognized community policing endeavor called the Resident Officer Program of Elgin (ROPE). Here’s the webpage. Links from that webpage take you to a map of ROPE coverage, as well as to pages devoted to each of five ROPE officer locations that include the resident officers’ photos, contact information and introductory greetings.

Oak Park has a Resident Beat Officer Program (RBO). Here’s the webpage. There are eight patrol zones; click on zone headings for the beat officers’ names, photos and contact information.

City of DeKalb has a Resident Officer Program (ROP). Here’s the webpage. The description identifies an Officer Burke who lives on the 600 block of North Eleventh Street, and there is a written description of the ROP territory. There is no map, no address, no photo or contact information for this or any other officer.

Part of this is about how much DeKalb’s $50,000+ website sucks, but there’s more to it. On Friday, I received an email from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer that read, “As you may know, the City utilizes multiple police officers in its Resident Officer Program (ROP).”

No, I did not know that. How could I? The city’s website mentions exactly one resident officer, and there’s nothing in the Chronicle archives, either. Unlike those of other communities I looked up, there is virtually no current public information about this supposedly extensive public program.

Indeed, what I found were a couple articles published three years ago, when Officer Burke moved into a home that City of DeKalb purchased and renovated with Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds (an arrangement the city refers to as “enhanced” ROP).

So let’s look at the context of the email from the city. A few weeks ago, when DeKalb was first contemplating a monstrous property tax hike for the coming collection year, I began combing budgets to find out why other General Fund revenues are once again coming up short. The usual suspects when it comes to higher-than-inflation increases occur in the personnel services category (wages, pensions) but I also discovered that the contractual services category has grown by $1 million over the past two years. I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for invoices charged to certain expense accounts in this category to get a feel for what’s driving the increases.

However, the city chose to redact parts of the invoices on privacy grounds. Specifically, there were bills for Comcast Internet service with redacted account numbers and mailing addresses.

So, DeKalb is providing Internet services at undisclosed locations? That seems a recipe for shenanigans, I thought. I appealed to the attorney general’s Public Access Counselor for a review of the city’s decision to redact. This led to my receiving an explanation from City of DeKalb (which I appreciate, yet also understand as an attempt to get me to drop my request for a review). From the FOIA officer:

At one of the ROP locations, after the officer moved into the location, the house was the subject of multiple incidents of vandalism, both to the home and to the officer’s vehicle. Following those incidents of vandalism, the City installed a security system on the home, to maintain the officer’s safety and that of the officer’s family. The security system uses a high speed internet connection to monitor the property. The bill that you had FOIA’d was the Comcast bill for that connection.

I sympathize. I know many in the Third have to deal with vandalism the best they can — and without the help of city resources. But I have not yet found an exemption to FOIA based on vandalism.

Also, it seems to me that if the Eleventh Street property has been so particularly targeted, or if crime in the Third is generally so much worse than Elgin’s that expense records about public projects on certain public properties can’t be shared, it is probably time to pull the plug. Because the alternative would give a green light to the city’s owning public property in secret for lord-knows-what purposes, and nobody wants that.

But of course I suspect that’s not what’s really happening, but is rather just another discrepancy between DeKalb’s claims of openness and how it really operates.