Investigation: WPD not following own policies on public information

The Wilmington Police Department has not only not become less transparent, but in some instances is delaying the process of releasing information that is already subject to public record. (Source: WECT)
The Wilmington Police Department has not only not become less transparent, but in some instances is delaying the process of releasing information that is already subject to public record. (Source: WECT)

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Members of the state NAACP demanded more transparency from local law enforcement in a news conference late last year outside the New Hanover County courthouse during a time in which the county led the state in investigations with officer-involved shootings.

Eight months later, a WECT investigation revealed the Wilmington Police Department has not only not become less transparent, but in some instances is delaying the process of releasing information that is already subject to public record.

Public records battle

In the case of Officer Adam Phillips, a complaint was filed by one of the people arrested during the incident. An internal investigation cleared one officer involved, but found that Phillips did use excessive force. Phillips was suspended for two days.

When WECT obtained a copy of a letter sent from IA investigators saying that Phillips had used excessive force, we asked if the officer had been suspended, fired, demoted, or transferred. The first response we received from WPD spokeswomen Linda Rawley was they do not release that type of information.

"We don't disclose suspensions or disciplinary actions taken in an individuals personnel information to the public," Rawley said.

For the most part, records of City employees are kept in their confidential personnel files. North Carolina law does allow for the release of some information, including an employee's salary, contract, and dates and types of disciplinary action. When we pointed out that the information we were asking for was public and the WPD had released this information in the past, Rawley again denied our request, not because it was private but because she said the city does not track suspensions.

"We do not have a public document in our HR Department that shows an employee's suspensions," Rawley said. "Our HR documents reflect changes in position and salary classification for example: Administrative Leave with or without pay or Family Medical Leave. Administrative Leave is not necessarily a disciplinary action."

Again, we pointed out the provisions in the law that allows for the dates of suspensions to be released to the public, and again, the WPD denied our request. According to Cpl. Leslie Irving, the WPD did not have a physical document showing the suspension.

"We gave you all of the public records we have relating to Officer Phillips' salary and classification changes, and all of the other information allowed under NCGS 160A-168.  If we had any actual public documents that related to suspensions, we would provide them to you, but we have checked with the Human Resources Director and we do not," said Irving. " What we have given you is all that we have.  The statute you attached only relates to RECORDS we have to provide (the title of the law is 'Privacy of Employee Personnel RECORDS'), if we have them, not to information.  We are not required to provide information that is not documented with a record or to create documents for the public or the media.  Again, you have all of the non-protected public documents that we have that relate to all of the categories you requested from the state law.  As far as any information the City/WPD has relating to an internal investigation and any disciplinary action that happened as a result of any investigation, that would be part of an officer's personnel file and is protected from release by law."

The WPD is correct in saying they do not have to create a record for a public records request if it does not already exist. But, for the fifth time in a 48 hour period we pointed out that we weren't asking for a physical document but information that is legally allowed to be released. It was then that Rawley finally confirmed that Phillips had been suspended.

"I have just gotten off the phone with legal I've been advised to gather info of last suspension for Officer Adam Phillips for you," Rawley said. "I'm trying to get that date for you now from a supervisor. Officer Adam Phillips last noted suspension was issued on June 12 and June 16 a total of 24 hours. Hope this will give you what you need."

WPD violating own policy

While records of individual internal investigations are kept secret from the public, the WPD does track them, and is supposed to report general numbers to the public. The internal affairs division of the WPD uses a database known as the Personnel Early Warning System. This system is set up to track all citizen complaints, internal investigations, uses of force, and employee injuries.

According to the WPD's own policy manual, the internal affairs commander will produce a yearly report for the Chief that will also be made public.

At least once annually, the Internal Affairs Commander will cause to be made a written review of the Personnel Early Warning System, Analysis of Uses of Force, Analysis of Grievances, Analysis of Pursuit Reports, IA Investigations Statistical Summary, Employee Injuries, and Police Vehicle crashes. These reports will be simultaneous produced , and included in a an annual report which is based on the pervious calendar year. The report will be submitted to the chief of Police prior to the end of January. Once reviewed by the Chief of Police, the report will be published to the Department's Website, where it is available to the public and officers.

The last annual report to be posted to the internal affairs website was the 2010 report, but that link along with the 2009 report does not open a report.

Rawley has provided the 2011 and 2012 report, though it is still not posted on the website per their policy.

WECT requested reports from 2013 on June 26, but have yet to receive them. Rawley says those records should be released soon.

"We are trying to update the 2013 report to make sure it meets some new CALEA Standards," Rawley said.

Copyright 2014 WECT. All rights reserved.