Screenshots of the Mercury News and KQED articles

MuckRock helps California journalists unearth thousands of police misconduct records

Written by
Edited by Amanda Hickman

When the California legislature passed the landmark “Right to Know Act” in 2018, lawmakers lifted the veil on four decades of secrecy surrounding police internal investigations and officer discipline. Journalists from organizations across the state joined forces to begin requesting and analyzing the newly available records, but the project was time consuming and difficult to track between so many newsrooms.

In 2020, the journalists with the The California Reporting Project enlisted the help of MuckRock to organize the project and help reporters make and manage their records requests. MuckRock’s tools allowed the newsrooms to file and track public records requests from police and sheriff agencies across the state, and enabled the reporters to cover hundreds of news stories about police misconduct — including use of force, sexual assault and official dishonesty — and journalists’ fight to access the records.

To date, MuckRock has helped the group file more than 2,200 records requests, and the journalists have obtained more than 180,000 police files. The group continues to request records from more than 700 law enforcement agencies each year, thanks to MuckRock’s easy-to-use tools and management system.

MuckRock is a nonprofit collaborative news organization that facilitates public records requests for journalists, researchers, academics and the general public. MuckRock’s database of more than 26,000 local, state, and federal agencies makes it possible to track records requests at scale. The organization is also home to DocumentCloud’s suite of tools that journalists and archives use to analyze, annotate, and publish primary source documents.

“MuckRock is key to organizing our requests and agency responses,” said Lisa Pickoff-White, a data journalist and senior producer at KQED in San Francisco and The California Reporting Project.

Pickoff-White’s work with MuckRock led to her bombshell report that Bakersfield, Calif., police officers broke at least 45 bones in 31 people ​​between 2016 and 2019, and no officers were disciplined. The records released by the city of Bakersfield include records of investigations into use of force resulting in serious injury or death. In one third of cases, Pickoff-White found, the reported injuries included one or more broken bones, sometimes following stops for infractions as minor as bicycling without a headlight.

At The Mercury News in Silicon Valley, reporters found that the Richmond Police Department’s use of force caused significant injuries 122 times during a six-year period — and more than half of those were caused by police dogs. Police dogs in Richmond, Calif., bit 73 people during that time — an average of one every month and a higher rate than police counterparts in the nation’s largest cities.

Those are just two of the hundreds of stories made possible by MuckRock’s collaboration with The California Reporting Project so far.

From Google Sheets to MuckRock solutions

Founded in 2010, MuckRock is a nonprofit news site that brings together journalists, researchers, activists and regular citizens to request, analyze, and share government documents with the goal of making the government more transparent.

The site provides a repository of hundreds of thousands of pages of original government materials, information on how to file requests and tools to make the requesting process easier. MuckRock staff and outside contributors also use the documents to create original investigative reporting and analysis. MuckRock’s API allows developers to build automated systems for submitting and tracking requests.

Kiera Murray, an operations lead at MuckRock, helped guide the California Reporting Project’s work and provided support as reporters from newsrooms across California collaborated to file and verify public records requests.

“There are some inherent challenges in the records requesting process that can be obstacles for any requester, but those challenges are magnified when operating at this scale with a very large number of requests,” Murray said.

Before the journalists started working with MuckRock, they had been emailing records requests to agencies one by one and using Google Sheets to track their progress, but the undertaking was disjointed and hard to keep organized. A data journalist who helped lead the California Reporting Project remembers the challenges.

“Making requests to more than 700 agencies every year and then managing requests over time is difficult,” Pickoff-White said. “Our collaboration was not able to consistently manage a distributed record request workflow before MuckRock.”

Cross-newsroom collaboration

To improve the group’s cross-newsroom collaboration, MuckRock used specialized templates to send out records requests using an internal bulk submission tool and tracked the status of each request so reporters could get updates and download the files when they were ready.

MuckRock has a database of more than 23,000 government agencies across the U.S., so the reporting team had a head start on contact information for many of the targeted agencies. Whether law enforcement offices used email, online portals, fax or mail, MuckRock staff could retrieve and process those documents and even send requests out by postal service where necessary.

MuckRock’s system allows the organization to quickly scan, and upload documents arriving by postal mail to the request page so the reporters have access to a digital copy without dealing with physical papers or discs. Emailed and faxed documents populated automatically in the system. MuckRock also provides an upload link that agencies use to securely provide records, including documents, videos and photos, directly, which help with very large files.

When agencies didn’t respond in a timely manner, MuckRock sent automated followup messages to ping them regularly. The system also allowed reporters to write their own messages to agencies so they could communicate seamlessly without leaving the request thread. When agencies provided documents, those records appeared on the thread as well.

“There have been huge releases of documents, video and audio,” said Murray.

Setting up a support team

Even with all of these systems in place, the process of requesting public records can still include logistical hurdles that require more human interaction. That’s where a support team comes in.

In 2021, the California Reporting Project brought on a part-time records request manager to collaborate with MuckRock staff and oversee assistants. In December 2022, the group developed a Django app to better manage the requests using data from the MuckRock API.

The Django app helped reporters respond to agencies in a more timely fashion, organize assistant assignments, track the status of partially filled requests in more minute detail and check whether agency responses were complete and consistent with data reported to the California Department of Justice.

“Large-scale record requests take time and effort,” said Pickoff-White. “Automation can help with the sending of the requests, but you’ll still need staff to manage relationships, help clerks navigate their own portals and push for agencies to release the full extent of records.”

Pickoff-White and Murray encourage newsrooms that want to do similar projects to reach out to MuckRock for help and use its multilayered support system.

“MuckRock can help you with your requests whether you’ve never filed before or are a FOIA veteran,” said Murray. “To get the most out of the platform, I’d encourage everyone to utilize our resources to become a better requester and receive support from our team.”