By Jeremy Maready
The Lakeland Police Department may be violating Florida’s public records law by refusing to provide The Ledger documents requested on seven teenagers, according to Tampa lawyer Gregg Thomas, who represents the newspaper.
Thomas reviewed emails between LPD’s lawyer, Roger Mallory, and The Ledger, which on Dec. 6 requested “all Lakeland police reports, complaint affidavits, charging documents and any other official records” relating to Bernardo Copeland Jr., charged with the Nov. 24 shooting and robbery of Ralph Harper, and six other teens charged in that case. The Ledger is seeking records involving the teens’ criminal histories before the shooting of Harper at the Lakeland Farmers’ Market.
Mallory has provided some documents but also has denied some of the records requested, citing exemptions in the cases involving juveniles and ongoing investigations.
But the law states that records regarding juveniles charged with a felony or three misdemeanors, as the seven teens have been, are to be released to the public. In addition, some of the records The Ledger asked for were already made public.
Lakeland Police Chief Lisa Womack said the case remains active because two witnesses are still being sought.
Before requesting records involving the teens and charges against them, The Ledger already had received two documents that charged Copeland with aggravated battery and grand theft in two incidents before the Farmers’ Market shooting.
But it still has not received detailed documents on the cases from LPD.
One incident, a shooting, occurred Sept. 30. LPD sent The Ledger a “cover sheet” that included just Copeland’s name and the charge against him, along with the name of Devin Reed, who had been shot in the incident. The cover sheet included no information on what led to the charge of aggravated battery with a firearm against Copeland.
The second incident, a case of grand theft of an electric guitar and a box of gun ammunition, occurred just hours after the Farmers’ Market shooting Nov. 24. Copeland was charged in the robbery.
Detectives signed off on the arrest report Nov. 30.
But Mallory said Copeland’s name didn’t show up in reports until a fourth supplemental report in the case was filled out and approved by supervisors Dec. 19, nearly three weeks later.
He still did not send the report, citing more exemptions.
“That investigation is ‘active’ and the information it contains is exempt ‘criminal investigative information’ under Sections 119.011(3) and 119.071(2)(c)1 of the Fla. Statutes,” Mallory wrote.
But Thomas, the newspaper’s lawyer, said, “You are always entitled to the incident report.”
Mallory first said the case number the newspaper cited for the grand theft report had nothing to do with Copeland. It wasn’t until The Ledger sent a photo of the report’s cover sheet with Copeland’s name and a charge of grand theft on it that the department acknowledged the case involved him.
“Either they are totally incompetent in handling the records, or are refusing to abide by the law,” Thomas said. “The public has a constitutional right to this information.”
Womack said Friday that her department has given everything it is required to do under Florida law and that the newspaper isn’t entitled to review the description of the crime in the arrest report.
“We wouldn’t give you that because it’s still open,” she said. “I don’t have any reason to believe Roger is giving you the run-around.
“I believe we are doing this (withholding the records) for the right reason. I don’t think we’re breaking the law.”
Thomas said there is a process in the court system that law enforcement agencies can pursue if they think releasing information could bring harm to a witness or jeopardize the investigation.
“They can go to court and ask for a cessation,” Thomas said. “They can’t make that decision on their own.”
But Thomas said it is rare those requests are granted by a judge.
HOW LPD CONDUCTS SEARCHES
Mallory provided the following explanation on how the department differentiates records it searches:
“Our employees understand the concept ‘police reports’ as a separate and distinct class of documents from ‘arrest affidavits,'” Mallory wrote. “They do not understand the phrase ‘police reports’ in its generic sense; i.e., all reports or records created by police officers. Employees of LPD understand ‘police reports’ as reports written by a police officer; either the ‘initial report,’ or a ‘supplemental report.’ There is only one initial report and can be many supplemental reports written at any time after the initial report; but which stem from the matter initially investigated and referenced in the initial report. Arrest affidavits, for LPD, are a separate and distinct class of records than ‘police reports’ and are not integrated with ‘police reports’ as that class of records is defined above.”
When first questioned about the complaint affidavit regarding the shooting involving Copeland, Assistant Chief of Police Mike Link said he wasn’t able to view the report in the department’s system because it was part of the detective’s case file.
He also said LPD’s records department wouldn’t be able to search for that either, even though it had been submitted at the Polk County Jail
Womack said she admits her agency will sometimes play a “cat-and-mouse” type game with the media when LPD doesn’t want to release sensitive records but said that isn’t the case this time.
“This is not one of the cases when we would do that,” Womack said. “Our attorney has made the determination that he has released everything we are required to by law.”
Womack said she wasn’t aware some records couldn’t be seen by LPD’s records department and said she would look into seeing whether there are problems with the records system.
Thomas disagreed with Womack’s assessment of the department’s compliance with the law.
“I think you have a constitutional and statutory right to the documents,” he said. “There should be no cat and mouse, and the fact that she said that is incredible.”
What do you think? What information can be released in this case? Comment below.