Determination: DeKalb must release locations of license plate readers

Published

The Public Access Counselor of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office has determined that City of DeKalb improperly denied a Freedom of Information Act request for the locations of its license plate reader cameras (LPRs).

DeKalb fought release of the information beyond all reason. This post examines three ways the city embarrassed itself doing it.

The city ignored advice that the exemption they would use to withhold information was faulty. LPRs are a tool for everyday policing, but DeKalb tried to withhold information based on exemption 7(1)(v) of FOIA, which protects plans and protocols that can prevent or respond to sabotage or terroristic attacks upon public infrastructure. What’s more, the requester informed DeKalb in his original request that City of Decatur had corrected the same error of inappropriate exemption, but DeKalb tried to argue it anyway.

DeKalb’s police chief signed an affidavit for the PAC that misrepresents the function of LPRs. He claimed in it that LPRs are “designed to identify, prevent, or respond to potential attacks upon the city’s population or systems, facilities, or installations.” No, they’re not. They’re designed to track people with outstanding warrants and to help locate missing children. If DeKalb utilizes LPRs in the way described by Chief David Byrd in this affidavit, the city is in dire violation of its own policies regarding their usage.

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Thirdly, the locations of half the LPRs were already public information when the FOIA request was submitted. The sales proposal the city council approved via resolution last fall included preselected locations for 6 of the 12 LPRs in a scope-of-work description. Try to reconcile this with the claimed need for secrecy under FOIA. You can’t. It’s an outrageous display of bad faith.

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Now, let’s talk about the often graceless handling of FOIA requests more generally. DeKalb publishes a FOIA Report each month in a city council agenda. It includes the costs of fulfilling each FOIA request, and often one city council member or another will whine about how FOIA requesters “waste” time and money that the city could use for something more important. That’s false. The Illinois General Assembly, via the Freedom of Information Act, has declared that providing information to the public is a fundamental function of every public body. IOW, there’s nothing more important for a government to do.

Additionally, if DeKalb wants to save money in fulfilling requests for information, it could stop wasting our time. Please just do us the favor of not handing requests to expensive lawyers to indulge in obviously untenable fights.

Below is the determination letter. I recommend a read for a fuller discussion of the points in Chief Byrd’s affidavit.

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