As protests against police brutality and racial injustice have spread across the country in recent days, many cities have seen law enforcement and other security forces respond with increasing violence. On Monday, President Donald Trump urged state governors to use aggressive tactics to target protesters.
Government officials work for the public. All of us have a right to know how they have responded in this moment, whether they have been honest in their statements, and whether they are being held accountable. Many jurisdictions have open records laws that allow members of the public to request records — including emails, memos, data files, complaint records, incident reports, and more — of what our government officials are saying and doing on our behalf. These tools will be important for long-term accountability.
American Oversight’s legal and investigations teams have compiled a list of strategies to help journalists, activists, and others in communities all over the country to use public records requests to uncover the paper trail and hold our leaders accountable.
This is not an exhaustive list. Moreover, the national scale of this moment means we have not been able to tailor every piece of advice to the local laws in every jurisdiction. But the principles outlined below should help you draft and submit more effective records requests.
The federal Freedom of Information Act allows people to request records from federal agencies such as the FBI or the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department (see more at www.FOIA.gov). Most state laws allow people to request records from state and local agencies like police departments, county prosecutors’ offices, and state attorneys general’s offices.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a great Open Government Guide with more information about the public records laws in your state.
Do you know that the records exist, or do you suspect they do? Do you know what they’re called? What type of record do you think the agency would create to detail what you’re trying to uncover, or to communicate specific information — would they write a report, a memo, or an email? Perhaps the given agency mandates that certain types of records are created after events such as when an officer uses force or fires a weapon. Are there laws or appropriation language that requires the documentation of certain things?
Some typically requested records include contracts, email and other communications, assessments or legal analyses, policy directives or memos, and complaints.
Keeping requests specific and narrow greatly increases the chance that federal or state agencies will actually respond to your request and produce records. It may be tempting to make broad requests to make sure you don’t miss anything, but the broader a request is, the longer it will likely take before you receive any records in response.
Do your research first! Use LinkedIn, government websites, public reporting, and court dockets to identify — if possible — the officials whose records you want. Dig in to find examples of previously released government documents to figure out what the relevant forms, directives, and memoranda might be called within the relevant government bureaucracy. For instance, witness interview memos at the FBI are on “Form 302.”
Try to identify specific records by name that you would want. If you want complaints from members of the public, attempt to determine the name that the agency or police department uses for those complaints. Identify specific individuals who will likely have the records you want (these are known as “custodians”) along with their offices, position titles, etc. Agencies often have their leadership on their website, in agency directories, or in spreadsheets detailing official pay. Use this information to target your request to include the individuals most likely to possess the records you’re interested in.
If you are requesting an official’s emails, try using keywords or search terms for the agency to use so that the search produces the most relevant results. And make sure to set date ranges — if you know when a record was likely to have been created, narrow it to that time period.
If you were the records officer tasked with searching for the records that you’re requesting, what information would you need to conduct the search? If you can find past examples of these documents online, you might know how the agency refers to them. Identifying a specific office, division, or person that might hold these records can help, as well as specific details. For instance, if you’re writing a request based on a live feed or an image, can you make out details such as an officer’s badge number or name?
It’s also worth imagining how a records officer who didn’t want to provide records might interpret request language in bad faith to “slow walk” the records’ release, or avoid releasing them altogether. How can you change your request language to help prevent such bad faith readings? Are there ways to be more specific, provide clarifications, or cut language that might produce records you’re not interested in?
Some records are exempt from public disclosure. For example, under federal law and many state laws, documents compiled for ongoing investigations are exempt until those investigations are closed. So it may make more sense to ask for records from older investigations that you know are closed, or to request policy directives or memoranda.
As you finish assembling your request, be sure to include your name and contact information and the contact information for the relevant agency or office contact information, along with the description of the records sought and a fee limit. The Southern Poverty Law Center offers a helpful open records request letter generator.
Follow up on your requests after you submit them. Sometimes public records officers can help you narrow or adjust your request to get meaningful records more quickly. Additionally, most jurisdictions set strict deadlines for government offices to respond to public records requests. Identify the relevant deadline in your jurisdiction and be sure to check in with the office if their response is overdue.
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