On Wednesday, March 16, 2022 The Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act held a meeting. There was interesting discussions about RCMP FOI requests.
The BC Police Association is calling for limits on freedom of information act requests or implementation of fees to slow down so-called “serial FOI requesters”.
The president of the British Columbia Association of Police Boards spoke before a special committee of the British Columbia legislature on Wednesday, arguing that the public should be charged up to $100 for filing freedom-of-information requests with police departments for publicly owned documents.
“Every single municipal police board has individuals that are putting in numerous FOI requests per month,” Huber said. “Some departments have individuals putting in up to eight requests a month. Some of those requests could take two staff two weeks to address.”
“The issue that I wanted to bring forward today is not necessarily the number of FOI requests that we’re receiving. As noted, the FOI requests are constantly growing.
It’s not necessarily the number of requests but the breadth, the scope and the complexity of requests with municipal police departments that are already understaffed and stretched thin. Obviously, some requests that are complex are very valid, but the issue that we wanted to bring forward was serial FOI requesters.”
An example of this is someone saying: “I would like all of the emails from the police chief to the board for the last seven months.” Then that becomes a fishing expedition where there actually isn’t a topic that the person is looking for. They’re just requesting information to then find a topic, which is taking away staff time and delaying requests from other members of the public or individuals that are potentially asking for their own personal information.
B.C. Liberal MLA John Rustad, who is deputy chair of the committee, proposed “a different way of thinking about FOI” at the hearing Wednesday, which would be to by default make more police records public.
Such proactive disclosure, Rustad said, could cut down on repeat requests for the same topic, especially when a request is dismissed or answered with incomplete information due to a department’s narrow interpretation of the information being sought.
“I think that’s one of the big challenges that we’ve seen with FOI,” Rustad told the committee. “You come back. You don’t get any records or you get incomplete information, so you end up putting in multiple requests to try to find this.”
Filing FOI requests is one of the few ways the public can obtain detailed information about how police departments spend public money.
Sean Holman, professor of environmental and climate journalism at the University of Victoria, called the imposition of fees for freedom-of-information requests “a very regressive act,” saying the freedom-of-information system already defaults to secrecy without the added burden of a financial penalty for those seeking public information.
“If the public cannot access the information they need to exert control and certainty over this increasingly uncertain and uncontrollable world, they will look to other forms of certainty and control,” Holman said. “They will look to conspiracy theories. They will look to extremist ideologies.”