Police Lt. Eric Woods, speaking at this week’s Board of Selectwomen meeting, detailed plans to implement a new online system for the public to obtain police reports and other information. / Photo by Gretchen Webster

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — The Police Department, to make records and information more transparent to the public and to ease availability, is moving requests for records and other information online.

A new system, expected to be functional by the end of August, will make records of accidents, investigations or other Police Department documents, which fall under the Freedom of Information Act, accessible through a link on the department’s website.

“I think it’s going to be a good move for the Police Department and a good move for the community — to open access to police records,” said Lt. Eric Woods, public information officer for the Police Department

Plans for the new online records system were presented to this week’s Board of Selectwomen meeting. The panel subsequently approved a four-year contract for software needed to implement the system.

Police records will still be available at Police Department headquarters on Jesup Road by paying a fee of 25 cents per printed page, $5 for a CD and $10 for a thumb drive, Woods said, and credit card processors will be installed in the lobby. 

There will be no charge, however, for records obtained online. 

The online records system “is modernizing the department,” Woods added, and noted Fairfield and Norwalk police, as well as many other departments around the state, also are making records accessible virtually.

Although most police departments support modernizing the records process, it is more costly, Woods added. With cameras added to police officers’ uniforms and cruisers, there is much more information to organize before it can be made available to the public for record requests.

“When a request comes in, there are more records to go through,” requiring more confidential information to be redacted or removed, he said. For example, one incident involving three officers with body cameras and three police cars with dash cameras would produce at least six visual records to review before making information available to the public.

“All dash cam and body cam footage needs to be reviewed for every report,” he said. Certain images or information — concerning minors, for instance — must be removed. 

And reports for criminal or corporate cases can be extensive, he noted.

FOI law digitally outdated

Currently, the state’s Freedom of Information Commission does not allow police departments to charge for digital records, so the online records systems cost towns —and ultimately taxpayers — more in staff time, while reducing revenue from fees paid for paper copies, Woods said.

State law has not caught up with current technology, according to Russell Blair, director of education and communications for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

“It’s the way the FOI Act is written,” Blair said. “It only talks about fees for paper copy; there is no language for digital copies in the law. The law was written in 1975 — there were not a lot of digital records at the time.”

A proposal to allow police departments to charge for digital copies was included in legislation that did not pass the just-concluded General Assembly session, and there also is currently a court case related to the issue, Blair said. 

“The question is still open. But as of now [charging for digital copies] is not addressed in the law,” Blair said.

 Despite the additional work and costs for police associated with the online records system, under the new system, adopting online accessibility for police records is important, Woods said.

The town has entered into a contract with the Chicago-based company, RequestFOIA, to install and operate the software for $4,000 the first year, and $6,000 for each of the last three years of a four-year contract. Herbert Myers, the president of the company, is a former Westport resident, and gave the town a discount on the contract, Woods said. 

“We’re going full steam ahead” with the online system, Woods said. “It’s good for the department, and good for the community.”

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.