Mayor Gregor Robertson and the rest of the Vancouver Police Board voted unanimously Wednesday to allow the Vancouver Police Department to continue its controversial practice of simultaneously releasing classified documents to journalists and the public.
The decision was in contrast to a unanimous decision city council made in June to reconfirm the city’s policy to only disclose documents from a Freedom of Information request to the applicant, unless simultaneous disclosure is requested by the person.
Under the VPD policy, a single request from a journalist is shared simultaneously with the public and, by extension, other journalists. Though the city simultaneously released documents related to the Stanley Cup riot, it has historically only given documents to an individual applicant.
“I do support this current [VPD] policy given that public interest must trump commercial interests, particularly with regard to public safety,” said Robertson, who doubles as chairperson of the police board. “There’s a bottom line here where if we’re going to err on one side, it has to be towards public interest.”
When asked after the meeting whether he thought journalists are working in the public interest, the mayor again repeated that journalists have “a commercial interest” and that presents a challenge when releasing information from the VPD.
“Media is in business,” he said. “There’s obviously an interest in ensuring stories break and sell papers and get more viewers.”
Vincent Gogolek, executive director, of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association attended the police board meeting. He called the board’s decision “outrageous” and a contradiction of the openness practised by public bodies such as the city, B.C. Ferries and the B.C. government.
Gogolek noted B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham denounced simultaneous disclosure in her May 2011 report, saying it “frustrates the purposes” of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Denham recommended a minimum delay of 24 hours between the applicant’s receipt of the response and the time the response is publicly posted.
Gogolek said the primary goal of a journalist when making a Freedom of Information request is to uncover information for the public, not to make money for a media company. He said the board’s decision was done so the VPD could control the information it releases and ultimately dissuade journalists from making FOI requests.
“That’s what it’s designed to do, that’s why they love it,” Gogolek added.
The police board’s decision was based on a report conducted by board members Jason McLean and Wade Grant, who comprise the board’s FOI committee. The committee conducted the report after a request from Gogolek and his association to scrap the VPD’s FOI practice.
“The committee acknowledges that the policy may, at times, conflict with the needs of those who request information for media and/or commercial purposes,” the report said. “The committee believes, however, that we must side with what we see as the greater public interest. The committee believes that the public interest is best served by releasing documents in a simultaneous and unedited manner, absent any claim of exclusivity or control over records held by the Vancouver Police Department.”
During the meeting, McLean pointed out that privacy commissioner Denham’s recommendations regarding disclosure were not binding on the VPD. He also said the police board plans to “increase, as a matter of course, our disclosure so that to the maximum extent possible, the public has access to good information in a timely manner.”
Added McLean: “The spectre of stealing a scoop from a hard-working reporter who is acting in the best interest of the fifth estate [sic] is going to be mitigated through that process.”
It was a comment that left Gogolek perplexed.
“This does not make any sense to me,” he said.