EPISODE 2

RESPONDING TO A PANDEMIC

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Jen is joined by Adam Perez, Records Administrator for the Hayward, CA Police Department, as they look back on the many challenges the Pandemic brought to Hayward, as well as other law enforcement organizations across the country. They also discuss how priorities needed to shift immediately and what challenges still lie ahead.

Full Episode Transcript

Recording:

This is the Peers in Public Records podcast with Jen Snyder, brought to you by GovQA.

Jen Snyder:

Good afternoon, everybody, and thanks for joining us again. You are listening to the GovQA podcast and today we’re talking about public records. Specifically, we will discuss the effect of 2020 on our local governments. I’m joined today by Adam Perez, the records administrator for the law enforcement division of Hayward, California (population of about 159,000). I’d like to talk about how Adam and the city of Hayward have dealt with the events of 2020 and the recent public records changes. Adam, please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background and current role.  

Adam Perez:

Thanks for having me on as a guest; I appreciate it. I have been in the law enforcement records field for nearly 14 years. Prior to that, I worked with records in the public sector with Cal State Hayward. Right now, I work on everything records-related, from public records to our business offices. I also work with our customer bases internally here, and our officers and detectives as well.

Jen Snyder:

Excellent, let’s get started. Prior to 2020, can you give me an idea of how the city of Hayward was managing PRAs? What did that look like? How many staff members were working on PRAs?

Adam Perez:

That’s one of the interesting things about public records in the law enforcement field. Smaller and midsize agencies typically have one “go-to” person that deals with all public records, and it hasn’t really expanded beyond that.

We are seeing a tremendous increase in demand for transparency and public records, due in part to the increase in body-worn cameras in recent years. Additionally, the public is becoming more well-versed in the Public Records Act and realizing what is available to them. In the past, the records manager would deal with the requests while performing other duties. The increase in the volume of requests has led to a need to assemble a team.

With California Bill SB-1421 coming into law at the beginning of the year, we have seen a tremendous increase in the volume of public records requests. For those who are not familiar, SB-1421 makes police records available related to internal affairs investigations, use of force causing great bodily injury or death, and sustained findings of sexual assault and dishonesty.

This bill made it even more apparent that one person cannot handle the volume of requests, especially with that bill being retroactive to the beginning of when you have records. This change made us realize that we needed to quickly build a team.

We put together a team of two records personnel that were specifically trained for body-worn camera editing. The Public Records Act had a supervisor put in place over them as well. We are currently operating as a four-person team to deal with this volume of requests and trying to catch up with everything that has already been requested.

I think my agency and several other agencies would get hit with the same requests. There were “any and all” requests from various news organizations, the public defender’s office, and other outlets asking for all these records that have now become available. I think we got ours at 12:01 AM the day it came into law.

Jen Snyder:

Wow.

Adam Perez:

And we started right away identifying records and determining whether they are truly retroactive. We reached out to the California Attorney General here in California who decided, ‘Yes, this should be retroactive, and you’ll need to provide these records.” It was being challenged in court, but we moved forward and started putting these records together once the Attorney General gave his opinion.

We are still in the middle of that. Every January, I think it’s going to be commonplace to get an updated request from individuals and outlets asking for all the previous year’s records. That is how it’s going to be moving forward.

Jen Snyder:

Absolutely, and you echoed a lot of what I hear. I speak to our customers across the country and I spent a lot of time over the last year speaking with California agencies, specifically, due to some of these changes in legislation. And I had folks saying requests were previously 20% video and 80% documentation, and that has completely flipped. So, the video side of the world has really increased. I know you use one of our partners to handle your audio and video and we work very closely together to try to make that a seamless opportunity for our customer base.

But you also mentioned the complexity of requests and the different look of those requesters. Much of what I’m hearing when talking with folks is that the requester has changed. There are more national requesters and more research type of requesters that didn’t exist before in your world. They have evolved over the last year or so. Would you say that’s an accurate statement?

Adam Perez:

Oh, absolutely. We are seeing this on a national level. However, it has been interesting that even on a local level, people are becoming more well-versed and more aware of what’s available to them and what is considered “the people’s business.”

Jen Snyder:

Right.

Adam Perez:

“The people’s business” is common terminology in FOIA and in public records. I think our average requester is becoming a lot more knowledgeable about what is available to them and they’re being extremely specific. They’re quoting the Public Records Act to us.

Jen Snyder:

Oh.

Adam Perez:

They’re quoting current laws and legislature about what they know is available to them. Previously, we would have to do a lot of digging to help shape these more focused requests, and a lot of that is already happening on the front end. Requesters are doing their research ahead of time, and then they’re being extremely specific about the type of records they want. And yes, this is moving more into 911 recordings and body-worn camera recordings. We used to get a lot of statistical requests. For example, we would get a request such as, “I’d like to know how many collisions have taken place on these specific intersections over a period of time.” Those requests still trickle in, but we’re getting much different requests now. We can gather statistical information at a keystroke and we’re doing deep dives into our email servers trying to find keywords searches on specific topics.

We received an interesting request not that long ago which asked for anything having to do with nationalism or anti-Semitic terminology within our emails, including solicitation or conversations happening back and forth between city officials and officers. This was a unique deep dive into our communications and that’s where we are heading. These types of requests are vastly different, more complicated, and more specific than when I first started handling them.

Jen Snyder:

It sounds like it. I love that you mentioned the term “any and all,” which is a common phrase in the public records space.

We are currently conducting a survey and some early results show that, on average, request volume is increasing about 16% a year. We are seeing a higher average year to date of around 22%. How would you say your volume has increased? Would you say that you map to those numbers?

Adam Perez:

That is close to our volume numbers from last year to this year. We’re a little bit above that, but if you look at the bigger picture from say 2015 until now, our volume increased on average 80-120% between 2015-2018, and it’s just only increased since then. I think the difference between 2019 and 2020 has been right around that 25-26% level, but the volume really jumped up for us, starting in 2014-2016. When some of the more high-profile officer-involved shootings hit the national spotlight, that’s when our volume really started increasing. We started getting a lot of requests and the demand for public records and transparency really shifted.

We implemented body-worn cameras in 2015. We started noticing a big difference in the demand for public records in 2016, once those cameras were fully implemented.

Jen Snyder:

Has the addition of SB-1421, which involves officer behavior, created any additional oversight implementation, or do you have a solid policy? How did that look for you?

Adam Perez:

We did implement a policy, which I thought was a key component to how we’re going to put this together. But really, we are following the formula that we’ve followed in the past. Yes, there are more records available, but we’re still closely following the California Public Records Act. We’re still sticking with a 10-day response time, or if need be, an extension of 14 days.

That formula has still helped us tremendously, but we have also been incredibly careful because these are new records. These are records that we haven’t had to review and provide before, so we are working with our city attorney’s office a lot more now than we ever did in the past. Typically, we would get one or two requests that were out of the ordinary and we’d need some legal advice from the city attorney’s office. Now, it seems like every one of these SB-1421 requests requires a full redaction and a legal review before it comes back for revision.

The formula has really helped, but it has slowed us down a little bit in terms of how responsive we are or how quickly we can provide these records. We have informed all our requesters this is going to be a rolling release, and this will happen over time. We are going to review all these records, redact them, and provide them as soon as they become available. At the same time, we’re working on all other requests with our team. That is why, as I mentioned a little bit earlier, that the team is the most important aspect of this.

I’ve talked with a lot of peers in Alameda County, and with our California Law Enforcement Association for Records Supervisors (CLEARS) organization, to see what everyone is doing and how everyone else handling these requests. Some of the other agencies around our size were experiencing the same challenges and putting teams together. This is no longer a solo endeavor; an entire team needs to look at these records, review them, and provide them. Otherwise, I don’t think we would be able to be as responsive as we are today.

I know we can do better. We’re working on so many different records right now, but the team that we put together has really been the key to success.

Jen Snyder:

Now that brings up a good point, Adam, because I’m talking with folks across the country who are genuinely concerned about budget cuts, staff shortages, and reallocation of staff because they’re trying to do more with less. How did you go about justifying the need to take that team from two to four people? Do you have any concerns about there being any challenges to that team staying intact or having to grow with the increased volume and complexity?

Adam Perez:

Well, there is always that concern. Had budget not been an issue, I think we would have had this four-person team in place a lot sooner. We had to add to this slowly. When body-worn cameras were implemented, we started with one additional person. It was that person and me working on these. As SB-1421 got ready to start, we needed to justify another position and it should be a supervisor. This year, we were able to add an additional person to assist with this.

One of the key things in going to my command staff to try to solve this is remembering this is not an “if you can get to this” situation. This is the law.

Jen Snyder:

Right.

Adam Perez:

That was an important component. This is our responsibility as an agency by law to provide these records and to provide them in a timely manner. There are no ifs, ands or buts around it. This is what we need to do, and there are ramifications if we can’t accomplish this.

Once we had that honest conversation with my command staff, everybody was on board right away. It was a matter of explaining, “Here’s what I see coming. If we can’t accomplish this, here are the other things that can happen and will happen. We just need to do our best to shuffle around, reallocate, and pull funds together to be able to make this happen.”

And that’s basically what we did. We shifted resources around and determined what can we devote more attention to, where we can shift focus, and how we can become more efficient in other areas so that we can make these things happen.

We have been working on that a lot over time and bringing in technology. Technology has been the biggest key in accomplishing this so we can function more efficiently and reallocate resources in other areas, allowing us to focus on this big project.

Jen Snyder:

You bring up a good point with technology. I’ve been hearing from others across the country that a lot of our government agencies had to move to a very quick remote deployment and start working from home. Law enforcement seemed to be able to manage that a little more in office than many others, but did you experience that remote need?

Adam Perez:

Absolutely. I think as law enforcement agencies, we get stuck in our ways as far as what we’re willing to do and change. We had to become comfortable very quickly with remote work.

I think as a city, we have done a fantastic job of being able to provide those opportunities for our staff to work remotely. We’ve been a little bit slower with that with law enforcement, and it’s just because of the nature of the business.

Jen Snyder:

Right.

Adam Perez:

A lot of what we do cannot be handled outside of this building. However, with public records, we started working right away. We got laptops to our staff and got everything set up for remote work. It was helpful that we had different ways for the public access records. We have a public records portal where you don’t have to physically go to the police department to file a public records request. We still accept requests that way. The California Public Records Act is extremely specific that we cannot force a person to request something in one way. We must accept them in any way they come, such as phone, email, or paper. However, having the ability to use a public records portal to build that request into the system and respond to it electronically has made a huge difference. If we had not implemented that prior to 2020, I think we would have been scrambling to figure out how we are going to accomplish this.

I know a lot of cities have struggled with that or have sent out messages that public records are going to be slow or requests will not be fulfilled during a set timeframe because of shelter-in-place orders. Fortunately, we were already set up with the public portal.

Jen Snyder:

Now, are you still remote, Adam?

Adam Perez:

I am not. I am the records administrator and have recently taken over property evidence. I have been in the office so that our staff can be in constant contact with me.

My staff has been working remotely off and on for several reasons. One of the complications of COVID is that for those of us with children, our kids are learning from home. We had to look at this and be flexible, knowing that everybody is facing challenges at home. We immediately realized the need for flexibility and allowing everybody to take care of family priorities, while remaining productive.

 We have managed the remote working challenges well. There are some things that I just don’t have staff do from home, especially SB-1421 type requests, but we have been able to handle all hurdles remote work can bring.

Jen Snyder:

With everything that’s gone on in 2020 – from legislative changes to the pandemic to civil unrest – have you experienced any need to shift priorities on any projects? Have you reprioritized any initiatives based on what we’re anticipating for probably the first half of next year?

Adam Perez:

There have been some things that we have had to, unfortunately, put on the back burner and much of that is budgetary. There is talk right now within various police departments about defunding. Hayward has put a panel together to look at our budget and what can be reallocated, where funds can be pushed, and what calls we will respond to as a police agency, as opposed to another entity.

So, some of that has put some of our projects on the back burner. As far as new technology we can implement, we are reviewing how we can be more efficient with responding to public records. Our current model is going well. We are beta testing the link between GovQA and Veritone right now to see if that’s going to help us become more efficient in responding to the body-worn camera and other requests more efficiently.

Unfortunately, I think everything else has been put on pause for a little bit until we see how the dust settles and where we end up. We will then implement what we can to automate some of these services.

Jen Snyder:

Absolutely. What would you say has been the biggest challenge for Hayward in 2020?

Adam Perez:

I think the biggest challenge has just been being flexible and adopting a different mindset. Like I said, as law enforcement agencies, we get stuck in our ways and I think we had to think outside of the box. We had to find a way to balance keeping our staff safe with providing excellent service to the public, without diminishing the quality of that service. I think that was the biggest challenge when it came to COVID-19.

When the shelter-in-place order was declared on March 17th, we had to change our mindset and do things differently. Change does not happen right away, but we looked at different ways and ideas to get things done. We looked at the current technology we have in place and adjusted. We had the ability to push all regular public report requests online, so we did that first. It was a challenge to change the way we think about meeting the public’s needs.

Jen Snyder:

I think that’s a great point. I know that government agencies in general have not usually been known for being very flexible or agile. It has not been necessary, so I think that’s been a big challenge for a lot of our government agencies. So, it is great to hear someone who has embraced it and said, “Okay, this is something that we are going to have to acknowledge.”

So, Adam, I’m wondering if you could do me a favor. Since have a lot of experience in this space and you’ve seen a lot of change, what are some suggestions you can give to our audience as we move into 2021? We know we will not magically wake up on New Year’s Day and it’s all going to go back to normal. But from everything you have experienced and for folks who might be behind you, what would be some of your suggestions or quick go-to’s that you would suggest people look at first?

Adam Perez:

One of the things I mentioned earlier is this isn’t a solo job anymore, so don’t try to tackle this whole thing on your own. I think it’s important to start building a team and get creative with it if you must.

When we started looking at putting a team together, we didn’t have the budget to do it. To start, we created a special assignment, which was built in with a pay increase to set up some of these positions. It took a lot of advocating for putting a supervisor into that role as well, but that is a key component. These requests are immense and even if you’re from one of the smallest agencies, you can’t do it on your own. There are many other responsibilities of being a records supervisor or records manager, and most often they are responsible for these public records requests. Your team is important; surround yourself with a team to be able to accomplish these requests.

The other thing, too, is we need to start looking at new technology to make this efficient. Like I said, requests come in many formats – paper, email, snail mail – and it was a game-changer for us to use technology to assist us with managing public records. Evaluating our technology early on helped set us up for the success that we have had so far in 2020.

At this point, it’s not too late; this is going to continue for a while. I don’t think we see the light at the end of the tunnel quite yet and we’ll continue to face challenges in 2021. You can always be more efficient at what you do, and technology is a huge key component to moving forward as a successful agency.

Jen Snyder:

That’s some great advice I can echo. I was talking with a customer on the east coast who had mentioned that, if this kind of event had happened in previous years, they would have all been furloughed. They would have had to state to the public that they cannot be compliant, and they would have been furloughed because they had absolutely no way to do anything remotely. So, we are seeing a shift that technology is becoming not a “nice-to-have” in the process, but rather a mandatory tool.

Adam, that was some great information and advice. We have had a great talk, and if it’s okay with you, our audience sometimes likes to reach out to our guests to ask some specific questions on some of the things that we’ve spoken about. Would you mind telling everybody how they can reach you?

Adam Perez:

Yeah. The easiest way to get ahold of me would be via email, and that’s adam.perez@hayward-ca.gov.

Jen Snyder:

Wonderful. Well, I want to thank everyone for joining us today. Adam, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you. I really liked the insights you shared with the audience today.

I hope everyone stays safe and I hope we see each other on the other side of this and get to visit people in person again. But until then, we’ll all do what we can, and we’ll work remotely when we need to. Thank you, Adam. I appreciate your time today.

Adam Perez:

Thanks for having me; I appreciate it.

Recording:

Thank you for listening to the Peers in Public Records podcast. To continue the conversation and learn more about public records, visit us at govqa.com or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

HOSTED BY

JEN SNYDER

Chief Evangelist

As GovQA’s Chief Evangelist, Jen is interested in meaningful conversations that look both at the big picture, as well as dig deep into nitty-gritty best-practice working sessions on all government challenges and opportunities including those related to technology, transparency, security, procurement, legislative mandates, compliance, staffing challenges, and more. Jen’s 15 years of experience in the state and local government space includes guest speaking and moderating for government events, roundtables, and associations. She has another 10 years of experience managing local and international business development initiatives for B2B tech companies.

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