"Why would you do this?"
We wanted to build on our database of fatal shootings by police by adding information on officers
Years of Service
Excessive force complaints
Fired shots previously
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
I wrote a script that pulled data from our database, wrote a request and sent the request off
That works great!
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
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)
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
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.
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
Respond to emails and track everything EVERY DAY
A couple weeks off will put you so far behind
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
Don't expect the same response from different departments involved in the same incident
Responds same day and gives me everything I ask for
Tells me that despite the fact that they had officers there, none fired shots
Responds six months later, tell me that they can't give me anything because investigation is still open
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
If you're going to all this effort, make your data available
A lot of our data is already on Github
When we hit a critical mass of responses, we're going to post this data for everyone
What I learned by filing the same FOIA 1,033 times
By Steven Rich