Madison Police Department Settles Lueders Record Suit
Turns over records, will pay $3,000 in fees, costs, damages
The Madison Police Department has agreed to settle a records lawsuit brought by Madison journalist Bill Lueders, formerly of Isthmus, Wisconsin Watch and The Progressive. Lueders sued in September after being told he would have to wait over a year to receive records of internal investigations. After being sued, the department produced the responsive records and has agreed to pay Lueders $3,000 to cover his attorney fees, court costs, and statutory damages of $200. The department has also taken steps to reduce its backlog of requests, including adding two additional positions.
Lueders, who also serves as the elected president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, initially made a request for investigatory records for a single incident – a sergeant who had written an intemperate email to supervisors and received a one-day suspension. After being told it would take approximately 14 months to get those records, he investigated further and learned that while requests for MPD incident reports typically get fulfilled fairly quickly, requests for disciplinary records are handled in a different manner, resulting in delays of more than a year. Lueders made two additional requests for disciplinary records in early April; he was told in late June to expect to wait another 11 to 12 months.
State law requires records to be produced “as soon as practicable and without delay,” which the state’s Attorney General recommends should be less than 10 business days for most requests. The Madison Police Department has been previously sued over its long delays in responding to records requests, but it appears that the problem persists.
“I thank the Madison Police Department, especially records custodian Julie Laundrie, for taking action to dramatically reduce the department’s backlog of records in cases involving alleged wrongdoing by officers and staff,” said Lueders. “These are important records to which the public has the right to timely access.”
Said Tom Kamenick, President and Founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, which is representing Lueders: “We’re glad that the Madison police have recognized that waiting a year to receive records is unacceptable.”
The department released records in two batches: 300 pages of complaints against police during the first three months of this year and the 166 pages of records from the seven complaints in all of 2017 that led to discipline. Lueders’ analysis of these records will be included in a column in the new issue of Isthmus which will be available on Friday, Nov. 3, a day after the print edition comes out.
“I hope the members of the public will avail themselves of the opportunity to review these records, which shed light on how well the department performs the essential function of policing itself,” Lueders said. Kamenick said the lawsuit and its settlement should serve as a warning to others: “Custodians around the state need to understand they will be sued if they let their backlogs get too long.”