12 News Investigates: Data analyst frustrated with JPD’s slow response to records requests

12 News Investigates

JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – On Monday, 12 News told you about our public records complaint to the State Ethics Commission. We checked the ethics records and found the Jackson Police Department (JPD) has been found in violation several times in recent years, including in a case involving SpotCrime.com’s Brittany Suszan.

“It’s just been so crazy in Jackson,” Suszan said. “I mean, this is not this is not a typical response from a police agency, especially the size of Jackson.”

Suszan is the website’s vice-president. It’s an online crime alert service, free for public use. SpotCrime takes public data from police departments all over the country and uses it to map crime incidents down to the block level. They wanted to do just that with major crimes logs from JPD.

“They had a log that they would publish to the website and update it weekly,” Suszan recalled, “and it included just a crime blotter of crime incidents that occurred throughout the city for the previous week that stopped 2018.”

Suszan filed a public records request with the city of Jackson on December 20th, 2018, for “the crime log from the Jackson Police Department for the dates of November 13th to December 19th, 2018, including street, block, crime type, date.”

She received a formal acknowledgement from the city that same day. On January 2, the city told her they needed more time, and apologized for the delay. Then, nothing, for more than five months.

“I had followed up multiple times with them, and just nobody was getting back to me,” Suszan said. “I didn’t get a response back saying, hey, we’re looking into this or, you know, we’re having some trouble or there’s a backup or anything. It was just silence.”

Suszan filed a public records complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, which oversees compliance with state public records law. The city’s response: The call center had just moved to a new computer-assisted dispatch system, or CAD software.

“And with this new system, we no longer have what’s referred to as a major crimes log,” she stated. “Now, whether that new system has another report called something else. I fully believe there is. But because I didn’t exactly specify what report for them to pool that was already in existence, I guess they said that there were no responsive records.”

The city told 12 News, in our own public records request this year for the department’s calls for service log, that JPD had changed its CAD software, and the data we requested is apparently archived in the old system, out of reach of records clerks.

It took about a year and five months for the commission to rule on Suzan’s complaint. The commission found that the City of Jackson violated the law, “by failing to timely deny Brittany Suszan’s public records request. The Ethics Commission orders the City of Jackson… To strictly comply with the statutory deadlines and procedures… And recommends that the city designate a public records officer pursuant to the Mississippi model public records rules.”

SpotCrime’s analyst finally got something from the city.

“What I did after this is, I requested the exact same data, I requested that same data, but with an up-to-date 2019 date range. It took them a couple of weeks. I don’t know exactly how long, but they did respond, and they charged me $9.00 for the data. It had no locations with it. There’s no way to plot it on a map.  Obviously, I want to map it on spot, deliver the email alerts. We don’t charge anyone for email alerts. The stock map is free. Our apps are free. But what I also request every agency to do is to publish the data publicly to their web site,” said Suszan.

The city was doing just that until about 2018, the top of the first Lumumba administration. JPD posted crime data to its open data portal.

“All I wanted was them to just start updating their website again, like they had in 2018,” Suszan said.

She says such public data as major crimes logs and 911 call data are important public resources. They help citizens evaluate the effectiveness of their police force. And they highlight problem areas for crime trends and response times.

“It’s mind boggling what is going on in Jackson, where the police agency is going to drag their feet to answer these types of requests about public information that is public,” she said. “It’s not anything that is private information. This is all public information. You’re only doing a disservice to your public if you’re only going to talk about your problems behind closed doors.”

Suszan has filed a new complaint against JPD, but even if the Ethics Commission finds in her favor, that panel has very thin enforcement powers.

Any official who improperly denies a public record request, or tries to charge an unreasonable fee, can be held liable civilly in his personal capacity, but the fine is in such a case would be no more than one hundred dollars per violation.

12 News will keep you posted on developments with our own ethics complaint.

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