The MuckRock guide to opening police departments with public records

The MuckRock guide to opening police departments with public records

File your first request through our Assignment for use of force policies

As protests of the killing of George Floyd and other black Americans continue, many communities are looking for answers in how to hold police departments more accountable to the communities they serve. In conjunction with today’s training, we’re putting together a collection of resources on how public records can play a small part in that work.

Supporting and connecting with existing advocates

Many organizations around the country have been pushing for more open police data and accountability for a number of years, bringing together advocates, researchers, data analysts, policy makers, journalists, and more to better understand the challenges in policing and fighting to set important precedents for transparency and oversight.

Because policing varies so much from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and transparency laws can be radically different state to state, much of this work is highly localized. Just a few organizations to check out:

Targeting some common categories of records

Often times, it can be hard to know where to start when requesting. Here are some common requests; we’ve added example language you can use in the links to many of the headers below.

Standard operating procedures

What standards does your police department claim to uphold? To get a baseline of what is and isn’t permissible, as established by the police force itself, request the department’s policy manual, which may also be called its standard operating procedures.

These policies cover everything from expectations for an officer’s fitness and qualifications for particular commendations to how drones may be used and how certain investigations may be conducted.

Use of force policy

Find out in which situations and how officers are able to use force or weapons on a civilian. Start by requesting the department’s use of force policy. This will include circumstances during which force might be deemed appropriate, reporting requirements, and the expectations of other officers that are present. Campaign Zero requested use of force policies from 100 police departments to identify gaps in their standards and compel the addition of important protocols, like the expectation that officers will stop any inappropriate use of force by a colleague. This same work can be done locally to understand what guidelines your police department already has and which ones need to be added.

Blank forms

Police departments are required to do a lot of different reporting: to the state, to the federal government, to their own unions and networks. Knowing exactly what it is that they report or knowing exactly how to request that information in a way that is effective can be difficult. By requesting the blank forms that police departments keep to record operations and incidents, one gets a better sense of the data being collected and how it is being organized, which will help to make the process of getting that actual information much easier.

Police union contract

A police department’s union contract can be the key to better understanding how and why certain behaviors are tolerated or excused. Due to union contracts, officers can be shielded from public scrutiny, even those with a known track record of misconduct, or continue receiving compensation even after being removed from duty for acting out of line. Campaign Zero has used records requests filed through MuckRock to learn more about police contracts.

Citizens submitted complaints

Access to individual personnel records vary from state-to-state, as does access to prior complaints submitted to an agency about their operations or a particular police officer. WNYC has a good guide to each state’s policy; if materials are subject to disclosure, file a request to see what others in your community have had to say about officer conduct.

Surveillance and firearm equipment purchases

Understand how a police department is equipped through examining its purchases. You can request the invoices for technology purchases the department may have made. Sometimes, departments access tools through collaboratives with other agencies, which is what we’ve seen around facial recognition and other surveillance tools. Other times, they are able to access equipment through particular grants and programs, as with the 1033 program transfer of military equipment.

Legal fees and settlements

Each year, police departments spend hundreds of millions on legal fees and settlements for police misconduct. Request the records associated with these cases and these settlements. Find out how much your police department has needed to spend to protect their officers from legal action and which individuals may be the most frequent offenders. The Chicago Reporter used these kinds of requests to create a database in Chicago, where the police department has spent more than a half a billion dollars in the last 15 years to settle lawsuits.

Overtime pay

With protests happening around the country, our taxpayers are covering overtime pay for thousands of officers. Exactly how much overtime pay can sometimes be discovered through a public records request.

Taking your first FOIA step

If you’re eager to get started with policy transparency but not sure where, we’re here to help. Fill out the MuckRock Assignment below, and we’ll file a request for your local police department’s use of force policy, which you can then compare with other responses.

You’re not alone

Thank you for fighting for more open, responsive policing. IF you run into rejections, questions, or need a place to commiserate, join the MuckRock FOIA Slack, our free chat room for transparency fans.


Image via FBI.gov