Tips for Filing Public Records Requests in Your State or City

En Español

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. 

1. Determine what records you can request in your state or local jurisdiction.

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.

2. Determine what records you’re seeking.

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.

3. Narrow and target your request as much as possible. Use keywords.

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.

4. When writing the request, consider the perspective of both the person whose records you’re seeking as well as the person who might conduct the search.

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?

5. Determine what kinds of information are going to be exempt no matter what.

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.  

6. Include important contact information.

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.

7. Don’t forget to follow up!

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. 

 

Consejos para las Solicitudes de Registros Públicos

Mientras manifestaciones en contra de brutalidad policial e injusticia racial se extendien a través del país, muchas ciudades han visto cuerpos policiales y otras fuerzas de seguridad responder con creciente violencia. El lunes, el Presidente Donald Trump urgió a gobernadores estatales a usar tácticas agresivas para dirigirse a los manifestantes.

Funcionarios del gobierno trabajan para el público. Todos nosotros tenemos el derecho de saber cómo ellos han respondido en este momento, si han sido honestos en sus declaraciones, y si están siendo responsabilizados por los hechos. Muchas jurisdicciones tienen leyes de registros abiertos que permitan a miembros del público solicitar registros — incluyendo correos electrónicos, notas, archivos de información, registros de quejas, informes de incidentes, y más documentos — de que nuestros oficiales gubernamentales están diciendo y haciendo en nuestro nombre. Estas herramientas van a ser importante para la rendición de cuentas y transparencia a largo plazo.

Los equipos legales y de investigación de American Oversight han recopilado una lista de estrategias para ayudar a periodistas, activistas, y otros en comunidades a través del país como usar solicitudes de registros públicos para descubrir el rastro de papel y responsabilizar a nuestros líderes. 

Esta no es una lista exhaustiva. Además, la escala nacional de este momento significa que no podemos adecuadamente hacer a medida cada trozo de consejo para las leyes locales en cada jurisdicción. Pero los principios delineados debajo deberían ayudar hacer y presentar solicitudes más efectivas. 

1. Determina qué tipo de registros se puede solicitar en su estado o jurisdicción local. La Ley de Libertad de Información federal permite a personas solicitar registros de agencias federales como el FBI o la División de Derechos Civiles del Departamento de Justicia (ve más en www.FOIA.gov). La mayoría de estados permiten a personas solicitar registros de agencias locales y del estado como departamentos de policías, oficinas de fiscales de los condados, y oficinas de procuradores generales. 

La Comisión de Periodistas Para la Libertad de Prensa tiene una gran “Guia de Transparencia Gubernamental” con más información sobre leyes de registros públicos en su estado. 

2. Determina qué registros está buscando. ¿Sabe que los registros existen, o sospecha que sí? ¿Sabe cómo se llaman? ¿Que tipo de documento cree que crearía la agencia con los detalles que está tratando de descubrir, o para comunicar información específica — escribirían un informe, o una nota, o un correo electrónico? Quizás la agencia ordena que ciertos tipos de registros sean creados después de eventos como cuando un oficial usa la fuerza o dispara un arma. ¿Hay leyes o lenguaje de apropiación que requiere documentación de cosas específicas?

Algunos registros típicamente solicitados incluyen contratos, correos electrónicos, y otras comunicaciones, evaluaciones o análisis, directivos de política o notas, o quejas. 

3. Enfoca y apunta la solicitud cuanto más se pueda. Usa palabras claves. Solicitudes limitadas y específicas aumenta la posibilidad de que la agencia federal o estatal responda a su solicitud y produzca documentos. Puede ser tentador hacer solicitudes anchas para asegurar que no se pierda nada, pero más ancha sea una solicitud, más tiempo se llevará en recibir una respuesta y documentos. 

¡Haga su investigación primero! Usa LinkedIn, sitios de web del gobierno, informes públicos, y expedientes judiciales para identificar — si es posible — los funcionarios cuyos registros quiere. Busca ejemplos de documentos gubernamentales previamente publicados para descifrar qué formularios, directivos, y notas podrían llamarse dentro del gobierno. Por ejemplo, notas de entrevistas de testigos en el FBI se llaman “Form 302.” 

Trata de identificar registros específicos que quiere por nombre. Si quiere quejas de miembros del público, trata de determinar el nombre que la agencia o departamento de polícia usa para esas quejas. Identifica los individuos específicos que probablemente tendrán los registros que quiere (esos son conocidos como “custodios”) y sus oficinas, títulos de posición, etc. A menudo, agencias tienen a su liderazgo en su sitio de web, en directorios, o en hojas de cálculo de salarios oficiales. Usa esta información para enfocar su solicitud e incluir a los individuos más probables en tener los documentos que quiere.  

Si está solicitando correos electrónicos de un funcionario, trata de usar palabras claves o términos de búsquedas para producir resultados relevantes. Asegúrese de usar una gama de fechas — si sabe cuando probablemente fue creado el documento, limita lo a ese período de tiempo. 

4. Cuando escribe la solicitud, considera la perspectiva de la persona cuyos registros está buscando y la persona que podría realizar una búsqueda. Si usted fuera el oficial de registros encargado de la búsqueda, qué información necesitarías? Si puede encontrar ejemplos previos de documentos en línea, puede aprender cómo la agencia se refieren a ellos. Identificando una oficina, división, o persona que puede tener estos registros podría ayudar, tanto como detalles específicas. Por ejemplo, si está escribiendo una solicitud basado en una transmisión en vivo o una imagen, ¿puede ver el número de placa del oficial, o su nombre? 

Vale la pena imaginar cómo un oficial de registros quien no quiere proveer registros podría interpretar lenguaje en su solicitud en mala fe para retrasar la publicación de los registros, o evitar la publicación completamente. ¿Cómo puede cambiar su solicitud para prevenir interpretación de mala fe? ¿Hay maneras de ser más específicas, proveer clarificaciones, o eliminar lenguaje que podría producir registros que no quiere? 

5. Determina qué tipos de información van a ser exentos sin importar. Algunos registros son exentos de la divulgación pública. Por ejemplo, de acuerdo a ley federal y muchas leyes estatales, documentos creados como  parte de investigaciones en curso son exentos hasta que las investigaciones se cierren. Así podría tener más sentido pedir registros de investigaciones viejas que sabe que están cerradas, o pedir directivas políticas o notas.

6. Incluir importante información de contacto. Cuando termine su solicitud, asegúrese de incluir su nombre e información de contacto y la información de contacto para la agencia relevante o oficina, con una descripción de los registros que busca y un límite de tarifas. La organización “Southern Poverty Law Center” ofrece un generador de cartas de registros públicos

7. No olvides dar seguimiento.

Da seguimiento a sus solicitudes después de presentarlas. Algunas veces oficiales de registros pueden ayudar enfocar o ajustar su solicitud para obtener registros útiles más rápidamente. Además, la mayoría de jurisdicciones tiene fechas límites estrictas para que oficiales gubernamentales respondan a solicitudes. Identifica las fecha límites en su jurisdicción y asegura contactar a la oficina si no ha recibido una respuesta después de la fecha límite.   

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Administration for Children and Families, Agency for International Development, Briscoe County - Texas, Bureau of Land Management, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Cobb County - Georgia, Criminal Division, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Reserve, Food and Drug Administration, Freestone County - Texas, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Department of Driver Services, Georgia Secretary of State, Gwinnett County - Georgia, Hall County - Texas, Hill County - Texas, Hood County - Texas, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Jones County - Texas, Kendall County - Texas, King County - Washington, Lavaca County - Texas, Leon County - Texas, Limestone County - Texas, Loving County - Texas, Morris County - Texas, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Office of Information Policy, Office of Management and Budget, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Scurry County - Texas, Starr County - Texas, Swisher County - Texas, Texas Secretary of State, Veterans Health Administration, Victoria County - Texas, Washington State Department of Health
February 21, 2020

When the Government Uses Redactions to Hide Evidence of Wrongdoing

Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Office of Management and Budget
February 20, 2020

Records from Trump’s Presidential Pardons Advisory Committee Must Be Available to the Public

February 7, 2020

News Roundup: Acquittal Isn’t the End

Cobb County - Georgia, DeKalb County - Georgia, Department of Energy, Department of Justice, Department of State, Florida Department of State, Fulton County - Georgia, Georgia Secretary of State, Gwinnett County - Georgia, Office of Management and Budget
January 24, 2020

News Roundup: Evidence of Obstruction

Clayton County - Georgia, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Communications Commission, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Office of Management and Budget, Tennessee Valley Authority, Texas Attorney General, Texas Office of the Governor, Texas Secretary of State, Texas Senate
January 7, 2020

Did the Trump Administration Abuse the Redactions Process?

Department of Defense, Office of Management and Budget
December 11, 2019

Lawsuit over Administration’s Unlawful Seizure of Trump-Putin Meeting Notes Moves Forward

Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration
October 4, 2019

News Roundup: The Public Needs Answers

Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State
July 30, 2019

American Oversight Sues Justice Department over Brooklyn Jail’s Inhumane Winter Conditions

Department of Justice
May 17, 2019

News Roundup: Investigating State-Level Threats to Democracy

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida, Georgia, Texas
March 13, 2019

Two Years of American Oversight

February 15, 2019

News Roundup: Citizenship, the Census and the Constitution

Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice
January 31, 2019

Lawsuit Seeks Emails of DOJ Official Involved in Controversial Civil Rights Decisions

Department of Justice
January 24, 2019

Checking Up on Trump’s Claims that Military Experts Told Him to Ban Transgender Troops

Department of Defense
December 27, 2018

Countdown to Oversight in 2019

January 12, 2018

Justice Department Staffing Up For Its Ill-Conceived Affirmative Action Investigation

Department of Justice
January 2, 2018

New FOIAs Seek Records of Civil Rights Investigations at Department of Education

Department of Education
December 19, 2017

American Oversight Sues DOD to Uncover Truth Behind Trump’s Transgender Ban

Department of Defense
October 4, 2017

DOJ Confirms Harvard Affirmative Action Investigation

Department of Justice
September 7, 2017

DACA Announcement Reflects Lack of Seriousness About the Law

Department of Justice