How the Tampa fire chief called the cops on a reporter seeking a public record

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Tampa Bay Times reporter Justin Garcia
Tampa Bay Times reporter Justin Garcia

Tampa Bay Times reporter Justin Garcia appeared on the Tuesday Cafe with Sean March 12 to discuss how the Tampa fire chief called the police when he requested the personnel records of a firefighter who was dismissed after being accused of lying.

Garcia had requested the file in person at the Tampa Fire Department headquarters downtown. He had requested the document through an online portal but thought it would be quicker to get the documents in person, he said.

But the personnel chief refused, insisting that the document could be obtained only through the electronic portal. When Garcia persisted, explaining that state law doesn’t require the use of an electronic portal, Fire Chief Barbara Tripp called the police.

“When Tripp told dispatchers to summon the police,” wrote Tampa Bay Times Executive Editor Mark Katches, “she also used the word “argumentative,” according to an audio recording of the phone call that we obtained. She didn’t mention that Justin was a reporter but an “individual” who was being “unruly towards personnel.”

Katches laid out the disturbing incident in a column over the weekend. “Think about the alarming message the episode sends to all Tampa Bay area journalists when asking too many questions can lead to this,” Katches wrote. Garcia left the building before police arrived.

While it’s rare that cops are called on reporters for seeking public records, it’s not unprecedented, Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability who has been a public records advocate for decades, told substitute host Tom Scherberger. She recalls an incident in Daytona Beach in which a reporter was followed by an undercover cop after she requested public records a local government official didn’t want released.

The incident involving Garcia is being recounted during the annual Sunshine Week, a national observance intended to highlight the importance of keeping public records public.

The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors started Sunshine Week more than 20 years ago in response to Florida legislators creating scores of new exemptions to the state’s public records law. This year, Peterson said, 18 new exemptions were passed by the Legislature.

In Garcia’s case, he got the records he was seeking about 90 minutes after his encounter at the Fire Department when the city’s communications director intervened. Nothing had been redacted. You can read the resulting story here.

You can to the entire conversation by clicking the link below, going to the WaveMakers archives or by searching for WMNF WaveMakers wherever you listen to podcasts.

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