There can be no faith in government if our highest offices are excused from scrutiny – they should be setting the example of transparency.
– Edward Snowden
Legislation in every state and on the federal level mandates that certain information (that not deemed to conflict with “national security” or “private”, such as health records, or part of ongoing litigation) created by and retained by government actors must be provided upon request. Typically, this is known as a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, though it’s known by other names in certain states (i.e. a “Right to Know Request” in NH or “Freedom of Access Act” in ME).
Each political jurisdiction varies slightly, but generally, FOIA requests need to be done in writing and once submitted, government actors have to provide you with the information after a proscribed period of time (usually between three-20 days). If the information is not to be provided a reason must be given – the burden is on the government actor. Sometimes, when that proscribed period of time is nearing or is reached, the government actor may request, in writing, additional time to satisfy your request.
You may want to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request if:
- you’ve had a negative interaction with a police employee
- you seek information about a police employee or a police policy
The more information you have the more-likely lies, omissions, and misinformation made by “the authorities” can be objectively demonstrated.
A FOIA request doesn’t have to be fancy. You can write a request using a pen on a piece of paper. Hell, even a scrape of paper will do (though some police outfits will tell you that a FOIA request must be on a form, such forms are often missing).
Be concise in your text, broad in your request. The more you ask for the more you’ll receive.
To Whom It May Concern:
This document is to serve as a Freedom of Information Act request. Please provide to me any and all content, including but not limited to dashcam video and related audio, dispatcher logs, police reports, internal memos, related departmental policies, from the incident that occurred on DATE at LOCATION involving YOUR NAME & CASE NUMBER/CHARGES IF KNOWN. Also, please include any and all information related to the number, date, and outcome of complaints made against POLICE EMPLOYEE NAME/BADGE NUMBER.
YOUR NAME PRINTED
YOUR PHONE NUMBER
YOUR MAILING ADDRESS
Alternatively, consider this much-more thorough FOIA request template shared by Virginia Cop Block
When submitting the FOIA request film the exchange. Or better yet, have a friend accompany you who can film. Ask for a receipt, or a signed/stamped copy of your FOIA request. The more each step is documented the better.
Watch how others have handled their FOIA requests and incorporate what you think effective
- Handing in FOIA Request by Ademo Freeman at the Laconia, NH police outfit
- Making a public records request at the Massachusetts State Police HQ by Mass Cop Block at the MA State Patrol outfit
Once you receive back information based on your FOIA request, if you want to get it in front of more eyes, save them as a .pdf, upload to http://scridb.com, and share them with others on your own site and/or as a post via http://copblock.org/submit
FOIA-related Legalese by State
Table above via FOIAdvocates.com
- Electronic Frontier Foundation – https://eff.org/issues/bloggers/legal/journalists/foia
This page gives an overview of the purpose of a FOIA request, covers about 20 commonly-asked questions, and provides ample links to information housed elsewhere.
- FOIAdvocates – http://foiadvocates.com
A very thorough project created and maintained by FOIA attorneys David Bahr & Daniel Stotter to help lessen the learning curve for obtaining information from federal- and state-based agencies, complete with a map, state-specific information, and more. Bahr and Stotter also offer assistance in pursuing the FOIA process.
- Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press – http://rcfp.org/open-government-guide
An informative clearinghouse of FOIA-related information. On the right sidebar of the landing page is a .pdf for each state that contains all FOIA-related information. Or, to view specific information for each state, click on the state name from the list in the middle of the page, then on the page you’re directed to, choose from the topics listed on the left sidebar.
- Rummaging in the Government’s Attic – http://www.copblock.org/rummaging-governments-attic
At the 2010 Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference Michael Ravnitzky and Phil Lapsley gave an insightful presentation on how to effectively use FOIAs as a tool to make information free. The post includes a link to the 50-minute audio captured and the slides used.
- Society of Professional Journalists – http://spj.org/foiabout.asp
A 2000-word overview on FOIA and it’s impact, written in 1996.
- The FOIA Project – http://foiaproject.org
This site documents FOIA requests submitted to federal government outfits and whether the information sought was provided or withheld, as well as lawsuits related to the latter that were filed since 2000.