What I learned by submitting the same FOIA 1,033 times

(and counting)

 

#NICAR17

@dataeditor

bit.ly/allofthefoias

"Why would you do this?"

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We wanted to build on our database of fatal shootings by police by adding information on officers

  • Name

  • Age

  • Race/Ethnicity

  • Gender

  • Years of Service

  • Position

  • Injuries

  • Commendations

  • Excessive force complaints

  • Body Cameras

  • Fired shots previously

  • Military service

So I filed requests on a rolling basis to get this information every time a shooting happened

Usually 2-3 requests a day, 7-8 on Mondays

LESSON #1:

Automate

I wrote a script that pulled data from our database, wrote a request and sent the request off

That works great!

 

 

Except...

LESSON #2:

A lot of police departments (and government agencies in general) don't accept requests by email

Many small agencies don't have websites or email

About 1 in 5 FOIAs I sent were via fax

LESSON #3:

Lots of agencies want you to fill out their form.

DON'T DO IT.

They're so damn time consuming.

(and laws don't require you do that)

LESSON #4:

Several states have a residency requirement for requests

That said, sometimes they fulfill it without invoking that exemption, so try

Make friends in those states

LESSON #5:

Know what they can deny you for and ask them not to deny you for that

"Hey, I don't need your officer's birth certificate"

(I did actually get a few of those)

"Can you please hold onto this if you're going to deny me because the investigation is ongoing."

Doesn't work every time. But works way more often than you'd think.

LESSON #6:

Have a system to track responses

I am not what you'd call an "organized person"

Built the tracking system into the already existing police shootings database

LESSON #7:

Respond to emails and track everything EVERY DAY

A couple weeks off will put you so far behind

LESSON #8:

Check your mailbox

This is just what I got in on Wednesday

I get so many FOIA responses in the mail, I almost don't know how to handle them

LESSON #9:

Don't expect the same response from different departments involved in the same incident

Department #1

Responds same day and gives me everything I ask for

Department #2

Tells me that despite the fact that they had officers there, none fired shots

Department #3

Responds six months later, tell me that they can't give me anything because investigation is still open

LESSON #10:

Read everything you get back, even if it's not obviously related

Sometimes you get hidden gold that's good for reporting

Sometimes you figure out what is considered redactable information

And sometimes you get really fascinating tidbits that will keep you sane

One of the officers who shot and killed someone last year moonlights as a tax preparer

We also got his college transcripts

LESSON #11:

If you're going to all this effort, make your data available

A lot of our data is already on Github

(https://github.com/washingtonpost/data-police-shootings)

When we hit a critical mass of responses, we're going to post this data for everyone

What I learned by submitting the same FOIA 1,033 times

(and counting)

 

#NICAR17

@dataeditor

bit.ly/allofthefoias

What I learned by filing the same FOIA 1,033 times

By Steven Rich

What I learned by filing the same FOIA 1,033 times

A #NICAR17 lightning talk.

  • 1,308
Loading comments...

More from Steven Rich