Philly Cops Send Unhelpful Response to Public Records Request on Fake Google Car

The department sent us back a copy of our own email.
July 5, 2016, 8:40pm
Photo: Dustin Slaughter

In May, that Philadelphia Police Department had disguised a license plate surveillance truck as a Google Maps vehicle.

Naturally, we filed a public records request pretty quickly after that news came out. We asked for all documentation around the proposal and approval process that would lead to a government vehicle disguising itself with Google branding, as well as any emails talking about the practice.

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On Tuesday, and after several delays, the police department provided access to one document: The original email reporter Dustin Slaughter had sent asking the agency for comment.

The department suggested there were other emails actually talking about using fake Google cars, but if there are, it's refusing to release them.

"We know how it happened—an officer put it on there. They took it upon themselves to do that."

One of the explanations cited for withholding those apparent emails was that they reflect the "internal predecisional deliberations of an agency, its members, employees or officials," which are protected from release under the Pennsylvania Right-To-Know Act.

The Philadelphia Police Department said it had no records of proposal or approval documentation for vehicles using Google branding, indicating that no sort of official process was followed when it decided to disguise the car.

Motherboard's request for comment when we broke the story in May, which the department scanned and sent back to us as the only document in its response to a public records request.

That holds with what a department spokesperson told Motherboard back in May. "The placing of any particular decal on the vehicle was not approved through any chain of command," the spokesperson said in a statement. The spokesperson also said the department would conduct an internal inquiry of how it happened.

On Tuesday, when asked whether that inquiry was over, a Philadelphia Police Department spokesperson said "We know how it happened—an officer put it on there. They took it upon themselves to do that."

"I think we would be fooling ourselves if we thought for one second that an organization with over six thousand members, that it's not possible for one to use a poor judgement and place a sticker on a car," he added.

The spokesperson declined to comment further on the agency's scant response to Motherboard's public information request.

Of course, there's the chance that someone else was luckier than us or wrote a better request, and did manage to get hold of those emails. If you did, well done, I would love to read them when you publish. In the meantime, we'll be appealing the decision.