- Associated Press - Thursday, May 31, 2012

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier says it’s not unusual or improper for the police force to burn documents, even as union officials continue to demand an investigation into how police department records came to be placed in trash bins and set afire.

Chief Lanier said burning records is a federally accepted method for disposing of unneeded papers and that the police department does it as a matter of routine. The comments drew immediate objections from the police union leader, who said there was no way a document burn at the fire department’s training academy two weeks ago was handled appropriately.

“That’s how we destroy a lot of records” along with drugs, guns and property, Chief Lanier said, later adding, “We do routine burns of things that have to be disposed of.”

The issue attracted attention May 18, when police department records were found in burning trash bins at the training academy. Fire department training and medical documents were discovered in an abandoned car nearby and some documents were also scattered on the ground.

Leaders of the police officers’ and firefighters’ union subsequently demanded an inspector general investigation into how the documents, which they said contained sensitive information, wound up in the bins. The inspector general’s office has not commented on the investigation. A fire department spokesman said the matter was still under investigation and declined to comment.

The police department said it would investigate whether any of its own document retention policies had been violated, including whether the documents that were burned were destroyed according to schedule.

The union officials have said the document burn appeared to have broken District of Columbia policies on document disposal, but Chief Lanier said that was not true and that burning records was a federally accepted method of destruction, even by the National Archives. National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper said Thursday that it burns classified documents as they’re scheduled for disposal, whereas other routine records might be shredded or pulped.

The AP obtained a May 17 email last week in which Marvin “Ben” Haiman, a police department recruiting official, advised his staff of a “file burn” that would take place the following day and instructed them to leave any unwanted documents outside in the hallway.

Chief Lanier said an earlier email from Mr. Haiman specified that the documents intended for the file burn were records pertaining to disqualified applicants from more than three years ago. She said she was told the destroyed records dated back to about 1960. Still, it’s not clear exactly which documents wound up in the trash bins or whether they followed those specifications.

Police union Chairman Kristopher Baumann said he didn’t understand how the chief could defend the practice of burning documents.

“The idea that in 2012, that we throw personnel records [in the trash] and light them on fire and hope for the best is unacceptable,” he said.

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