Covering law enforcement? Ask for ‘911 calls, body camera footage, details of calls for service’

Mike Balsamo is the U.S. law enforcement news editor at the Associated Press

It is now Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information launched by the News Leaders Association in 2005. To commemorate the occasion, we’ve asked journalists across different beats to share their tips for requesting open records and how they respond when facing roadblocks to access.  

Today, we’ll hear from Mike Balsamo, U.S. law enforcement news editor at the Associated Press and treasurer for the National Press Club’s Board of Governors.

What are five public records that reporters should ask for when covering law enforcement?

Balsamo: I have a few in my go-to arsenal of requests. Thanks to some great AP colleagues, I crowdsourced their top tips, too: 

  1. 911 calls, body camera footage, and details of calls for service. These are usually more detailed dispatch records that describe the type of call and what an officer knew when they were sent to the scene of a crime. I like to throw these in along with a request for officer’s notes. Some police departments still require officers to keep handwritten memo books, which can be a trove of information. 
  2. For cases involving alleged police misconduct, ask for the officer’s job application. This helps to get their work history faster and is usually not subject to the same exceptions you might encounter with other investigative records. It can also help identify if there’s a pattern of complaints or misconduct at prior jobs. 
  3. I always like to request blank versions of many police department forms, including arrest or booking forms and reports that officers have to file when they use force (sometimes referred to as “response to resistance”). This really helps to understand what information officers are required to report to their supervisors.
  4. If you’re digging for a potential story, consider seeking information about key card scans at courthouses or police stations. You can see when officers, supervisors, or police executives are coming and going (or if they are not coming to work regularly).
  5. Ask for copies of private security contracts police departments have with local businesses, event centers, and sports venues, etc. 

How do you get an unresponsive agency to respond? 

Balsamo: I like to follow up regularly. Set reminders for yourself when there are legal deadlines for responses and don’t be afraid to send a quick email or make a quick call. That also ensures you can file a timely appeal. 

If you feel like you’re entitled to more, the agency didn’t do a diligent search, or they just ignored you, appeal! Make sure you keep records of your communication with the records officers, even if that is just the date, time, method of communication, and a quick note. Those records will come in handy if you have to go to court to try to compel the records. 

And separately, try to think if there are any other agencies who might have the same records. Sometimes a state or local law enforcement agency will have the same documents the FBI might maintain, for example. I tend to find most state agencies are more responsive and quicker than the federal government. 

How do you manage keeping FOIA request costs reasonable for your organization?

Balsamo: This is a really hard one, especially as more agencies try to seek astronomical search or records processing fees. Don’t be afraid to negotiate or appeal their cost determination. Most states have processes in place for this. And again, this is one where thinking outside the box – who else might have this record – comes in handy. 

I also like to keep some requests tighter than others. For example, if I’m looking for one specific thing from an investigation that I know is a priority to obtain, I’ll file a single request for that and then I separately request the other records.

Share your FOIA and open records successes — or how you’ve worked around roadblocks — with The Latest subscribers. We’d love to feature your advice in our newsletter.

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