On average, Baltimore City-owned cars and trucks are involved in more than two accidents a day. That much is easy enough to discover. But finding out details about those crashes, it turns out, is a far more daunting proposition, another dead-end trip into bureaucratic darkness.
The details would seem to matter. The city has paid out $31 million in accident-related claims over the past five years and has spent $3.5 million on repairs to the fleet, which has more than 3,600 vehicles.
We began by asking the Police Department for copies of 250 accident reports from the first few months of the year. Reports are typically one or two pages, with basic information about the drivers and vehicles involved, along with a description and diagram of the wreck itself.
(The Sun recently discovered that the city has been selling those reports online without first redacting personal information about city employees, something the Police Department says it is now fixing.)
The department’s Central Records Section estimated it would take 12 hours to pull the reports, with all but two hours of staff time charged at $50 an hour. Photocopies would cost 50 cents apiece. Public agencies sometimes waive such fees.
“Total estimate: $625 (this could increase),” spokesman Anthony Guglielmi wrote in an email.
That was too steep. Another option was even worse: Buying the reports through a third-party vendor hired by the city. At $14 a pop, those 250 reports would cost $3,500.
Next, we turned to the city’s Risk Management Office, which oversees the payment of claims. Surely it would get copies of accident reports involving city-owned vehicles. No such luck. But the office did get copies of very similar reports produced by a branch of the city Law Department with the impressive-sounding name Central Bureau of Investigation.
However, the Law Department declined to release those CBI reports because they are “attorney work product.” Meanwhile, we realized that when the city sought bids from vendors for the online sales, it stipulated that the Law Department and Police Department have full electronic access to all police accident reports, which are city documents, after all.
We pressed city lawyers on both points, asking for the CBI reports and pointing out that the city had free access to the police accident reports we wanted. “Why,” we asked in an email, “won’t the city take very simple steps to remove the hurdles that are preventing us and by extension taxpayers from better understanding what is going on and what they’re paying for?”
“You may whine if you like,” replied City Solicitor George Nilson, the city’s chief lawyer and an appointee of MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake.
“Law declines to release IT’S CBI reports because they are truly attorney work product and thus protected. We are not obligated to access and obtain PD reports we don’t possess just because we could do so and for the sole purpose of circumventing the PD access decisions.”