In the last three weeks, Flagler Beach Police Captain Matt Doughney launched two initiatives designed to give city residents who may be elderly or disabled and live alone extra protection and awareness, and to give residents who go on vacation more security for their shuttered house.
Doughney has been on the job three months, taking on an especially active and visible role by issuing new initiatives and advisories directly to residents–including, recently, an advisory on staying warm through particularly cold spells–while underscoring his own accessibility. Doughney launched a third initiative to replace the ticketing of youths who don’t wear helmets at the Wadsworth skate-park with free helmets instead, thanks to a grant he secured through the Flagler Beach Rotary.
“The goal is to just increase the services of Flagler Beach, whether it’s through education or my experience as a law enforcement officer—to deliver services,” Doughney said. “It’s a way to deliver services that are a little out of the box, non-traditional, that are designed to help the people we’re sworn to protect and serve.”
But the two resident-centered initiatives, while entirely well-meaning, were rolled out without taking heed of a vulnerability: the initiatives rely on application forms that would be filled with personal, revealing information about residents’ medical histories and conditions, as well as residents’ absence from the city and an inventory of some of their valuable property. The forms would be public records: the are no provisions in state law that would exempt them from public view. As such, they could be requested–even anonymously–by potential burglars or other types of miscreants, thus exposing to potential harm the very residents the city aims to protect more.
The city had not considered those matters before rolling out the initiatives.
“That may be something I need to circle back on with him to make sure it doesn’t turn into a negative,” City Manager Bruce Campbell said Friday, referring to Doughney.
The “Friends of Flagler Beach” program helps residents living alone, who may be elderly, handicapped, or otherwise isolated from daily contact with relatives or neighbors, by enabling them to give a daily sign of life through a check-in system at the police department. The program is designed to prevent a tragedy should participants need police or medical assistance but are unable to call for help, according to a release issued by Dougheny this week.
Program participant must agree to call the Police Department Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and noon. On Saturday and Sundays, the Police Department will be responsible for contacting the program participants. The Police Department will establish preferable times for contact on the weekends, as some participants may like to go shopping, to church, and so on.
Should the participant not call on any given day, the department will send an officer to the person’s house to check on his or her well-being in what’s commonly referred to as a “welfare check.” Participants must, however, authorize a police officer to enter their residence with the use of a key if necessary, if and when such welfare checks are conducted.
There is little question that the initiative can help many residents, and would be welcome. “We felt it was a good thing, he proposed it and I said by all means,” Campbell said, referring to Doughney, who got the idea from Ponce Inlet. By having access to a resident’s key, should something go wrong, it’s “giving us the ability to get in the residence without tearing the door down or making some sort of entry where the house would be damaged,” Camplell said.
“They’ve been doing it there for years, they’ve never had a public record request for the program,” Doughney said of Ponce Inlet. He’s aware of the public-record potential, but was hoping that it would not be publicized. “If people come down here and request this stuff, it’s going to wind up killing both programs,” he said.
Residents who meet the initial criteria of living alone, who are elderly, handicapped, or homebound, must complete the application form and return it to the police department. The application asks for the participant’s name, address, phone number, the name of the participant’s doctor, “known medical conditions,” “prescription medication(s), next of kin, emergency contacts and so on. While state law does provide for the redaction of medical records from, say, the personnel records of government employees when those records are requested, the law does not address records voluntarily turned in to a government agency within the framework of a voluntary program such as Flagler Beach’s house watch or elderly watch programs. But Doughney said the medical information can be redacted.
Such things as names, addresses and phone numbers are not exempt from public record disclosure regardless.
Similar questions arise from the second initiative, rolled out earlier this month. The initiative is equally well-meaning and a useful service to residents. It is a house watch program. It allows the owners or residents of a property in Flagler Beach to notify the police department in writing that they plan on being away for a specific period of time. That period may be as short as a week and as long as 90 days. During that time, the department will conduct periodic checks of the property. And applicants will be afforded the chance to interact with officers at the end of their trip to ensure that they’ve returned safely.
The city had a similar, but less formal program in place in the past, where residents could call the department and request extra house watches while they were away, Campbell said. This one is different because it is more formal, and the police department will keep records both from the residents and from the police–including the ability to tell a resident how many times a property will have been checked on while the resident was away, Campbell said.
An owner or resident must complete a Flagler Beach House Watch form (also available below) and return it to the department either in person or by mail, or by attaching it in pdf or scanned format by email. The House Watch form provides details about departure date, return date, owner contact information and other information that will assist the department in conducting checks on the property.
But again, those details are vastly revealing of a resident’s schedule, phone numbers, extra amenities on the property–such as swimming pools, sheds, house alarms, rooms whose lights are set on timers, vehicles left in view–all of which can be magnets to miscreants, should they get their hands on the application, and none of which may be redacted.
Under the state’s public record law, an individual may request those records of the police department. The individual may remain anonymous: the police department (just like any other government agency) does not have the right to demand that the individual identify his or herself. Nor may the police department ask why a record is being requested (though local government agencies across Florida routinely, and illegally, ask for requesters’ names and reasons). And the department may not, of course, deny the individual the records, or redact information the law does not spell out specifically. Doing so would be illegal.
Most documents generated from government agencies, including police departments, include disclaimers about public records. At the foot of every email from the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, for examople, the following note appears: “PLEASE PLEASE NOTE: Florida has a very broad public records law per Fla. Statute 119. Most written communications to or from the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office regarding public business are public records available to the public and media upon request. Your e-mail communications may be subject to public disclosure. If you do not want your e-mail address released, do not send electronic mail to this agency. Instead, contact this office by phone.” (Phone records are also, of course, a public record.)
The two application forms issued by Flagler Beach do not include a disclaimer warning users that the information they are providing the city is a public record, and may be distributed beyond the confines of the police department. Absent that disclaimer, the city may be exposing itself to costly liabilities should such records be disseminated and misused–and should a resident decide to sue the city and claim that he or she had not been informed that the information provided was a public record.
The releases detailing the new initiatives note that applications for the “Friends of Flagler Beach” program can be picked up at the Police Department Monday through Friday, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., or they can be downloaded here or below. Completed applications can be dropped at the Police Department or mailed to the Police Department at P.O. Box 36, Flagler Beach, Florida 32136.
While the city will be looking into the public record issues raised by the application forms, Campbell said, he stressed the value of the new police captain’s initiatives. “I really appreciate his innovativeness. He’s really doing a yeoman’s job.”