This week’s FOIA roundup: Policing reform, law enforcement request strategies, and more

This week’s FOIA roundup: Policing reform, law enforcement request strategies, and more

The week in transparency and accountability battles, threats, and wins

Written by
Edited by Michael Morisy

Nationwide, the conversation around how to hold police officers accountable has taken on a more serious and urgent tone with the public, state legislators, and the U.S. Congress moving to add measures to improve police department transparency.

On June 5, MuckRock’s Michael Morisy and Beryl Lipton joined Freddy Martinez from Open the Government for a training on how public records can help, with additional resources in MuckRock’s guide to opening police departments.

Limitations on access to police misconduct

Legislators in New York have moved to eliminate obstacles in accessing police misconduct files imposed by Section 50-a of the state’s law, a step that’s been supported for years by many in the transparency community and which has recently drawn widespread attention from the public and celebrities. If the bill is signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has stated his support of the measure, Delaware would be the only state where police misconduct materials are explicitly confidential. WNYC has a very helpful resource for understanding which police misconduct records are available publicly in each state.

ICYMI: Police investigations from recent years

Policing agencies don’t always get funds in the way the public would expect. A 2016 investigation from the Chicago Reader highlighted this problem with policing agency budgets, a story built on public records requests to help shed light on Chicago police’s secret budget.

At the end of 2017, VICE News published a look at police shootings, fatal and nonfatal, by the 50 largest police departments in the country. The Texas Tribune’s Unholstered project previously looked at lethal police encounters in the Lone Star State from 2010 - 2015. The Washington Post has been updating its extensive database of fatal police shootings, a catalogue of more than 5,000 shootings since 2015.

Samuel Sinyangwe used these databases, as well as the Mapping Police Violence project, earlier this month for analysis in FiveThirtyEight.

ProPublica offers five ways to start holding the police accountable

Andrew Ford shared some basics for members of the public interested in investigating their local police.

Rights group sues for records on ICE handling of COVID

The American Immigration Council is suing Immigration and Customs Enforcement for materials on its handling of COVID-19 within its detention centers. The case is ongoing.

Federal agencies favor the law enforcement exemption

The Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice, which oversees general federal FOIA operations, released its annual summary of federal FOIA agencies based on each one’s annual FOIA report. The report notes that by far the most cited exemptions were 7(c) and 7(e), related to law enforcement files, and that eight agencies account for 83% of the federal FOIA backlog. But, as Lauren Harper wrote last week for the National Security Archive, the review offers an unrealistic impression of how FOIA requests are fulfilled with its reported 94.4% government release rate.

Modernizing government IT and the FOIA

The Federal FOIA Advisory Committee met last week to discuss a draft report with recommendations on how to improve the federal law. (Note: MuckRock founder Michael Morisy, who edited this article, served on the FOIA Advisory Committee, which is an unpaid volunteer position).

The Public Interest Declassification Board released its recommendations at the end of May on how to improve classification and declassification of federal secrecy.

More from the realm of open — and not-so-open —records

A request from Buzzfeed to the Food and Drug Administration returned materials revealing a surprising lack of evidence in the FDA’s approval of two malaria drugs for the treatment of COVID-19.

Shawn Musgrave filed a request for an updated list of military equipment transferred to local police departments under the federal 1033 program.

The Voice of San Diego recently said it is suing the Federal Aviation Authority for records on the SkyGuardian drones being tested over the California city.

Michigan will return to regular FOIA operations

Governor Whitmer announced that emergency orders suspending the state’s FOIA law will end on June 11.

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Your Assignment for increasing police accountability

MuckRock has opened up two Assignments — one on police department lawsuits and one on their use of force policies — to help the public better understand how their local departments are operating.

Header image from George Floyd protest in Littleton, Massachusetts, by Victor Grigas and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.