Saying goodbye to Sunshine Week

Saying goodbye to Sunshine Week

Plus following up on how military gear still flows across America in surprising ways

Written by
Edited by Beryl Lipton

As Sunshine Week draws to a close, check out some of our favorite projects from the week, including tips on collaboration and some awards you might not want to win. But first: how two reporters helped break news by following up on an old story.

Send over your favorite FOIA stories via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook, and maybe we’ll include them in the next roundup.

FOIA still helping dig into the 1033 program

MuckRock’s investigation into the federal 1033 program, which distributed surplus military gear to local law enforcement nationwide, helped spark a national conversation that ultimately reigned in parts of the program.

But four years later, there’s still a number of stories that public records requests can still tell, as Shannon Marvel McNaught and Craig O’Donnell report for the Dover Post.

In their first story, they found that tiny police departments are getting large amounts of equipment through the program - and then often selling it off, occasionally in violation of federal rules but often as a way of creating free cash that can be used to upgrade gyms, acquire new vehicles, or otherwise fund police operations:

So-called controlled property, including weapons, accessories and military-grade vehicles and gear, remain property of the federal government, but title to other surplus property - from bulldozers to blankets - is turned over to police agencies after they have been held for one year. After that, each department can sell, trade or give away uncontrolled property that it has received from the feds.

O’Donnell said that, unlike many other previous looks at 1033, they decided to focus specifically on the non-military gear flowing around because of the option for agencies to trade that gear in for cash or credit with various vendors.

“We were not overly concerned with the militarized gear, because it can’t be sold off and in Delaware there isn’t that much,” he wrote in an email. “Mainly rifles and such.“

Read more about how those exchanges worked - and occasionally failed - here.

McNaught and O’Donnell also did a good job exploring how data tracking equipment and agreements moved from the federal level to state and local, leaving lots of gaps. There was often little coordination between the various oversight agencies, with one agency claiming that just because it could access a database did not mean that the agency had to respond to a request for information about the database.

But the untangling effort was worth it.

“We were very surprised at the sheer amount of stuff that some smaller PDs asked for and got,” O’Donnell wrote. “Dewey Beach PD was running an off-budget program with surplus that it had auctioned off, and it only came to light after an outside lawyer was asked to look at accusations the police department made about the town manager (the ‘be careful what you wish for’ principle).”

There’s also plenty of material for other reporters and other interested in transparency to mine.

“How many PDs nationwide are running resale programs without knowledge by mayor & councils? With some of the small stuff, where does it go? Kayaks? TVs? Sailboats?” O’Donnell asked.

Explore 1033-related requests on our project page, and if you’re looking for inspiration, take a look at three spreadsheets O’Donnell shared.

The spreadsheets include itemized lists of transferred items, justifications given for those items, and other entries tracking the flow of surplus military gear throughout Delaware.

Sunshine Week spectacular

As another Sunshine Week winds down, it’s the perfect time to kick back, mix your favorite FOIA cocktail, and look back at some of the great projects that came out this week. We couldn’t possibly name them all, but here are some of the highlights that we came across and really liked:

Have you seen a great FOIA-based news story? Let us know and maybe we can include it in our next round up! Send it over via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Image by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons