Ferguson charging media high fees to obtain documents, as tensions flare

Media outlets have requested information from Ferguson officials under the state's Sunshine Act. Meanwhile, eight protesters were arrested Sunday evening.

Huy Mach/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar (l.) and Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson gather Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Authorities say a police officer was shot in Ferguson Saturday, the city that has been the scene of unrest since the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer.

Nearly two months after the fatal shooting of black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., the city's officials are charging considerable fees for media outlets to obtain sensitive documents.

Officials have charged as much as $135 an hour for basic tasks such as retrieving e-mail accounts and police reports, The Associated Press reported Monday. The Washington Post said Ferguson "wanted no less than $200 for its requests," according to AP. BuzzFeed was told "they'd have to pay unspecified thousands of dollars for emails and memos about Ferguson's traffic-citation policies and changes to local elections," AP reported.

AP also said Ferguson told the news organization that the city would need nearly $2,000 to pay for consultants to obtain messages from its own e-mail system. Information technology experts called this unnecessary.

Media outlets have requested such information under the state's Sunshine Act, which requires government documents to be turned over to the public for free if deemed "in the public's interest." Such laws can be crucial for citizens to have faith in their elected officials.

Of course, governments avoiding handing over information to the media is nothing new.

It's a "popular tactic" when governments want to "make the requester go away," Rick Blum, who coordinates the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups, told the AP.

In the case of Ferguson, the city's actions have given it the appearance of maintaining a combative edge in the face of international scrutiny.

The news about the high fees comes at a time of continuing distress in Ferguson.

Last week, a memorial for Mr. Brown burned, causing people to return to the streets. The beauty supply store Beauty Town, where many protests have taken place, has been looted repeatedly.

On Sunday evening, eight protesters were arrested as Ferguson police searched for the person who shot a Ferguson police officer in the arm Saturday night. Also Saturday, an off-duty St. Louis police officer was ambushed on the freeway near Ferguson, and he received injuries from broken glass.

On Sunday night, hundreds of protesters gathered across the street from the Ferguson Police Department and shouted, "Who do you protect? Who do you serve?"

As the events of this month and last have unfolded, Ferguson has tried to repair its image. The city hired a new spokesman, for example. But he was fired after it was revealed he had been convicted of shooting and killing a man 10 years ago. 

When Police Chief Thomas Jackson tried to join protesters in civilian clothes last week, scuffles broke out between protesters and officers. That was after he'd issued a video apology to the Brown family. 

Brown's parents said Chief Jackson's words meant nothing in an interview Saturday with the AP in Washington. They said they want Jackson to be fired and for Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, to be arrested and charged with murder. 

"An apology would be when Darren Wilson has handcuffs, processed and charged with murder," Michael Brown Sr. said. 

Brown's parents traveled to the nation's capital to meet with lawmakers and push Congress to pass a law that would require police officers to wear cameras during their interactions with the public. In principle, that might prevent the type of confusion that has ensued about what happened between Brown and Mr. Wilson.

Brown's parents also want the US Justice Department to take over the investigation into whether there should be criminal charges against Wilson. The Justice Department has been conducting a civil rights investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.

The Justice Department has already weighed in on officers wearing bracelets in support of Wilson that read, "I am Darren Wilson." The Ferguson Police Department has agreed to prevent officers from wearing the bracelets while on duty. 

"These bracelets reinforce the very 'us versus them' mentality that many residents of Ferguson believe exists," Christy Lopez, deputy chief of the special litigation section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote in a letter released Friday

A grand jury is deciding whether Wilson will be indicted. If he is not, residents fear things could get worse. Some say a large police presence will be necessary to keep order when the grand jury decides, the Los Angeles Times reports

"We just have to live day by day, trust in God and pray they don’t tear up the city," Shirley Turner told the Los Angeles Times. "It’s coming to the last days." 

 Material from The Associated Press was used in this report. 

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