Improving from an F- to an A, the Palo Alto Police Department nearly aced the latest open-government audit by Californians Aware, a non-profit advocating for government transparency.
The department only lost points for charging extra for copies of crime and accident reports, one of the many requests an anonymous volunteer auditor posed Oct. 16.
Overall, the department earned an A- in legal compliance and an A+ in customer service, according to CalAware.
"We did exceptionally well," said Sheryl Contois, director of technical services for the department.
Both Contois, and Assistant City Attorney Donald Larkin, said they thought this audit was more reflective of the department's overall performance than the January audit, which Contois called "an anomaly."
The previous audit was criticized for its methodology, inconsistent scoring, small sample size and use of grading criteria not based strictly on public records laws.
CalAware Executive Director Emily Francke said the organization originally planned to conduct a follow-up audit, but was persuaded to make "some pretty drastic changes" in response to complaints.
Rather than asking for the number of deaths in custody the department has had -- a request unfamiliar to employees because Palo Alto has had no deaths in at least 30 years -- the volunteer auditor asked for information about a recent burglary, Larkin said.
In addition, the recent audit broke down grades into two categories -- legal compliance and customer service. Agencies began with 100 points in each category. An agency earning 100 in the legal category adhered to the law, but did not necessarily perform extraordinarily, Franke said.
Scores of law enforcement agencies statewide climbed from an average of F to a C, Francke said, an improvement she attributed to both changes in the audit and a proactive response from agencies.
"I certainly think (the first survey) was an eye-opener for them," Francke said Thursday. "The fact they know about it now I think has a lot more to do with the change."
But Larkin said he attributed most of the shift to the change in the audit.
"I think (this audit) represents how we operate," Larkin said.
"Our records people understand that when people come into the Police Department it's usually a stressful situation for them and they do everything they can to make the people feel comfortable," Larkin said.
Although agencies have improved statewide, many records employees still asked the volunteer auditor for his or her name and purpose, information that is not required to get public data, Francke said.
Also, many department employees assumed the auditor was asking for a report, rather than just particular details from the burglary, Francke said. The agencies are required to provide information such as the location and circumstances of a crime, but do not need to provide the report to everyone.
Larkin said the trickiest task for records workers is to remember which records are public and which are exempt from disclosure.
CalAware volunteers visited 116 law enforcement agencies, making a written request and an oral request for information.
Generally, smaller departments performed better, according to CalAware's Web site, http://www.calaware.org .
The East Palo Alto Police Department earned a B in legal compliance and an A- in customer service, up from an F-. Mountain View had a B in legal and an A+ in customer service; it was not surveyed previously.
Franke said her organization plans to continue checking on the responsiveness of law enforcement agencies, but intends to focus on a different type of agency, to remain unannounced, in 2008.