While many governments across Maryland charge 25 or 50 cents a page for copies of public documents, police departments’ fees are several times as much.
Police commonly require $5 or $10 for copies of accident or incident reports, even for a single page.
Fees run higher in Baltimore County, which charges $15, and Salisbury in Wicomico County, which charges $20.
The flat fee in Sykesville in Carroll County — $25 for a report regardless of the number of pages — was the steepest among more than three dozen departments reviewed in a Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association project.
Maryland’s Public Information Act does not mandate specific fees for government bodies in providing records. Instead, the law says they may charge a “reasonable” fee, “bearing a reasonable relationship to the recovery of actual costs incurred by a governmental unit.”
Without further dictates, though, government bodies and agencies at all levels are on their own in setting fee schedules. Police departments routinely consider accident and incident reports in a different universe than other documents made available for lower fees.
Almost all of the 39 police agencies included in the MDDC survey charge at least $5 for an accident report, an incident report or both.
In contrast, among 25 local governments and state agencies surveyed separately about their general copy fees for records — unrelated to their police department — none charges more than 50 cents per page. About half charge 25 cents a page.
Six of those governments say they start with free copies of records, including up to 40 pages at no charge in Rockville in Montgomery County.
The MDDC focus on police agency fees — particularly for paper records — included 14 of the state’s 23 counties plus Baltimore city, as well as 22 out of more than 80 municipal police agencies.
Of the county agencies surveyed, half charged $5 or less. One charged at least $15.
Of the municipal agencies surveyed, only one charged more than $10. Ten charged $10 and seven charged $5. The town of Sykesville in Carroll County stood alone in charging as much as $25.
Sykesville Police Chief Michael Spaulding said his department’s fee was $15 before he became chief five years ago. The town raised the fee to $25 about a year ago, but will waive it for “someone who is down and out,” he said.
Still, he said, “we don’t want to be at the top of that list.”
While Sykesville and others impose a flat fee, other departments charge based on the number of pages. For example, the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office charges $8 for the first page of an accident report, then $2 for each additional page — meaning a five-page report costs $16.
Journalists across Maryland participated in the two-month MDDC examination of police departments.
The findings were timed for publication during Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide focus on the importance of public information which this year runs March 10 to 16. The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are coordinating the week, which starts with Sunshine Sunday.
Lower and higher
A few police departments surveyed have policies with lower fees.
Frostburg police in Allegany County do not charge for a report of up to 12 pages unless the request is “commercial.” Often, those paying for accident and incident reports across the state are attorneys and insurance companies, which consider the fees part of the cost of business.
Maryland Natural Resources Police is another example. They provide the first 10 pages for free, then charge 25 cents a page after that.
Many departments make accommodations, giving free copies of reports to crime victims or, as required by state law, to people who can’t afford to pay.
The Public Information Act also allows a waiver if information is in public interest. Under this consideration, some agencies don’t charge journalists for copies of records.
While Baltimore County police raised their fee a few years ago for a report, from $10 to $15, the Hagerstown Police Department in Washington County took the opposite step, lowering its fee.
The cost of an accident report in Hagerstown was $5 for the first four pages and $1 for each additional page. Now, an accident report is free for someone who picks it up in person or gets an electronic copy. The department adds a charge for postage if the person asks for a copy by mail.
Hagerstown Police Chief Paul Kifer said the department talked to a city attorney and re-evaluated what it charges, seeking a fair policy.
The cost remains $5 for up to four pages for an incident report, which Kifer said is likely to require more attention to redact sensitive information than an accident report. The cost per additional page is 25 cents.
“The majority of people can come up with $5,” Kifer said. If they can’t, the department waives the fee.
“It’s about being fair and open and transparent,” he said.
Many police departments said they believe their fee policy meets the “reasonable” standard, often citing the need to recoup labor costs, particularly time spent redacting private or sensitive information.
However, the Public Information Act doesn’t allow a charge for the first two hours of filling a request. Some departments get around that by charging a flat fee for a request.
After raising its fee from $10 to $15, the Baltimore County Police Department has one of the highest for an incident or accident report. Cpl. Shawn Vinson, a department spokesman, said the fee is justifiable, “knowing the amount of work that goes into it.”
He said it can take several hours to review a report before it can be copied and released. Baltimore County police do not give out a date of birth, the identity of a juvenile who might face punishment, details of medical treatment, exact addresses or vehicle identification numbers.
Under the Public Information Act, after two free hours devoted to filling a request, a government body may charge for labor based on the salary of the employee doing the work. Agencies must calculate costs based on “each individual’s salary and actual time” connected to the response.
Baltimore County breaks the cost down that way. Top hourly scale is $60 for attorneys and managers, followed by $50 for police officers, $35 for other positions and $15 for seasonal employees.
The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office and the Montgomery County Police Department each charge an hourly rate of $35 for labor after the first two hours. For the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office, the hourly labor charge is $28. It’s $15 an hour for the Westminster Police Department.
Baltimore County police list a $15 “search” fee for public records and a $36 “set-up” when making copies of photos.
T.J. Smith, a press secretary for the Baltimore County executive, wrote in an email that the search fee refers to the charge for labor after two hours, the amount at the bottom of the hourly scale.
“The set-up fee is for large requests of photos that go onto a disk,” Smith wrote.
The department’s fee schedule also lists “Photo package on CD” for $42.
The Anne Arundel County Police Department charges a $21 “report retrieval” fee for archived reports.
Christine Ryder, the custodian of records for Anne Arundel County police, said police reports before 2000 and certain other records are stored in a warehouse, which a vendor manages. The vendor charges the county the $21 fee to pull a box of records and the county passes along that fee.
Ryder said that process is considered separate from a Public Information Act request.
The largest law enforcement agency in the state, Maryland State Police, charges a $4 flat fee to search for an accident report, even if none is found.
Maryland Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Hochstetler, who works on public records issues, said he could not comment on PIA practices for this story.
In 2015, the state created an ombudsman position to mediate disputes between requesters and agencies over public records requests. Mediation is voluntary.
Lisa Kershner, the ombudsman, declined to comment about specific fees and policies.
The Public Information Act Compliance Board, which also was created in 2015, plays a different role.
The board — for which Hochstetler is legal counsel — hears and rules on formal complaints in which someone challenges when a government charges at least $350 to fill a request. The board may order a public body to reduce or refund a fee.
Complaints about unreasonable fees are specific to that situation.
In November 2016, the board found that when Baltimore County police charged $2 a page for records in one case, it was a “reasonable fee.” The department filled a request by providing 1,810 pages of records (of which 184 were redacted) and 33 compact discs, for a total of $4,554.
“Nonetheless,” the board said, “we advise that custodians who charge flat per-page fees must be able to show that the flat rate reflects the actual costs of producing the records.”
When Public Information Act issues come before the state legislature, legislation likely would come before the House Health and Government Operations Committee and the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Committee.
Del. Shane Pendergrass, D-Howard, who chairs the House committee, said the discrepancy issue has not come before her committee and she was not aware of it.
She said public records fees should be based on actual costs, and suggested that someone dissatisfied with a fee challenge it with that government body.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, the chairman of the Senate committee, expressed more concern and interest in the issue when it was described to him.
Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, said he was surprised that police departments were charging higher fees, particularly $15 in Baltimore County, which he called a “big leap” from what other government bodies charge.
He asked for more information so his office could investigate and decide whether it’s worth legislation in the current session or next year “if it’s being abused.”
Maryland’s Public Information Act says a government body may charge a “reasonable” fee for copies of public records, defined as “bearing a reasonable relationship to the recovery of actual costs incurred by a governmental unit.”
It does not mandate specific amounts for fees. However, the Act says it “shall be construed in favor of permitting inspection of a public record, with the least cost and least delay to the person or governmental unit that requests the inspection.”
Under the Act, a government body “may not charge a fee for the first 2 hours that are needed to search for a public record and prepare it for inspection.”
One change to the Act in 2015 was how labor costs are calculated beyond those first two hours. Agencies must calculate costs based on “each individual’s salary and actual time” connected to the response.
Another change was for waivers. The Act allowed a waiver if it were “in the public interest,” a provision news organizations often cite. The recent change added “indigence,” or inability to pay, as a basis for a waiver for an individual.
Also in 2015, the Maryland General Assembly created a public access ombudsman position to mediate disputes over requests for public records. It also created a Public Information Act Compliance Board to rule on complaints that an agency imposed an unreasonable fee “of more than $350.” The board may issue binding opinions.
The Act can be found online at www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/Pages/OpenGov/piaManual.aspx. Click on Appendix E.
A look at audio and visual fees
As part of a Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association survey of public records access, journalists across Maryland looked at fees for copies of documents, but also audio and video records. Some examples:
- The Harford County Sheriff’s Office charges $10 for a copy of an audio or video tape and $20 to provide a DVD or CD. The cost of photo prints is $3, $5 or $10, depending on the size.
- The Baltimore County Police Department’s fees for photos are $7 and $22, also based on size. A CD with copies of audio or video costs $42. There is also a $36 “set-up” fee.
- The Ocean City Police Department in Worcester County charges $50 to provide photos on a CD and $75 for a video.
- The Baltimore Police Department lists on its website a fee of $80 for a copy of a 911 audio file per incident.
- For the Montgomery County Police Department, the charge for a 911 recording had been $150, but the department recently decided to lower the fee to $75 because of new equipment that speeds up the process.
A big challenge for police departments whose officers wear body cameras is figuring out a good system for providing copies of that footage.
Frederick police charge $25. The Prince George’s County Police Department charges $75. The Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Office also charges $75, per deputy.
Washington County Sheriff Doug Mullendore said his office is taking a hard look at how to handle requests for footage, which must be reviewed and redacted carefully. For a major incident, there might be 10 or 12 deputies at the scene, each gathering different angles and locations through their body cameras.
He hoped to have a policy in place by the end of the March.
Hagerstown police is an outlier. Body-camera footage is provided free to someone involved in the call that was recorded. A link that will expire is sent by email.
A copy of the footage is provided on a thumb drive for $5.
The department charges $25 for the same footage if the person requesting it was not involved.