Arizona reporter recognized for ‘tireless pursuit of public records’

Arizona Daily Star reporter Carli Brosseau

Arizona Daily Star reporter Carli Brosseau

Arizona Daily Star reporter Carli Brosseau was recently honored with a Sledgehammer Award for her “tireless pursuit of public records” while reporting on her state’s immigration law.

The award, given by the Arizona Press Club, recognizes reporters “who relentlessly hunt for the truth despite obstacles thrown their way.”

“When told by police departments she couldn’t scan public records related to SB 1070 and would have to pay for copies, she pushed the Arizona Ombudsman to request an opinion from the Arizona Attorney General,” the press club wrote. “The resulting opinion says journalists and the public may use smart phones to scan and photograph records instead of paying for copies. As a result, several police departments have changed their public-records policies.”

On a separate story, Carli wrote about the South Tucson City Council’s refusal to make executive-session agendas more specific. As a result, the council made changes.

I reached out to Carli and asked her to tell me more about her immigration story and how she pushed for the public records. Here’s how she did it:

My colleague Perla Trevizo and I set out last fall to follow up on Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070. There was a huge uproar about it when it passed in 2010, and again in 2012 when the courts allowed the law’s so-called “show me your papers” provision to go into effect in September 2012. Then, nothing. We thought it would be interesting to see what actually happened. Basically, we wanted to answer the question, “What effects did that provision actually have?”

We decided to take a region-wide look and request records from 13 law-enforcement agencies around Southern Arizona. That included four counties and the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The rest were city or town police departments. We first inquired about how each department records calls to immigration authorities and found that efforts to track immigration inquiries varied widely.

DPS had a fabulous database, Tucson police had a paper system, some departments used special circumstance codes to flag reports, some could do keyword searches and others had nothing at all. Once we figured out the systems, we had to request the records, which generally took months to get.

We asked for every related log, list or spreadsheet, and then incident reports from each agency. In some cases, we reduced our request to samples of the incident reports; in others, we reviewed every immigration-related case. With every agency, we followed up at least weekly, sometimes more frequently, to make sure that progress was being made. We had two interns, Amer Taleb and Britain Eakin, who helped us with that.

It felt like we got every excuse in the book: No responsive records, over-broad request, impossible to retrieve the records, refusal to provide records electronically, charges even to inspect the documents, refusal to allow us to use a scanner. But we persisted and got documents from every agency, largely without paying fees.

One thing that made a huge difference was that I asked the Arizona assistant ombudsman for public access to request that the attorney general issue an opinion on record fees. The AG’s opinion clarified that agencies cannot charge if you request to inspect records, even if they need to do redactions first. It also suggested that scanning was equivalent to inspecting a document as there is no cost to the taxpayers.

Perla and I were also able to get some departments to pledge to improve their record-keeping. Douglas Police Department added a circumstance code that would flag immigration-related cases. South Tucson Police Department considered adding a circumstance code, but ultimately created a new paper form after negotiations with the ACLU over a related legal claim. Tucson Police Department said this week that they plan to launch a database with fields expanded from their original paper form. That made me very happy; we had so-far scanned almost 4,000 forms (3 months worth) before cleaning and mapping the data, something we plan to continue to do. We’ve also continued to follow up on data improvements to give credit to changes that have happened since.

Many thanks to Carli for sharing her story. You can read more of her work on her website and follow her on Twitter @carlibrosseau.


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