Sunshine Week: 5 public records to ask for when reporting on crime

Lakeidra Chavis is a staff writer at The Marshall Project

It is 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 responding when facing roadblocks to access.  

Today, we hear from Lakeidra Chavis, staff writer at The Marshall Project. Chavis has written on topics including the rise in Black suicides during the pandemic, the changing structure of gangs, the opioid crisis, and victim compensation.

What are five public records that reporters should ask for on the crime beat? 

Chavis: Five public records that reporters should ask for on the crime beat are your city’s latest homicide and property crime data going back five to 10 years, your police department’s records retention schedule, copies of their policy directives, and incarceration data. 

These records are essential on the crime beat. Historical crime data will allow you to dive deeper into stories when you have a short deadline or need to test a hypothesis. A records retention schedule will give you insight into how long the department maintains certain information — like body camera footage, for instance — in addition to all of the different types of records the department keeps on file. Policy directives outline the rules and steps officers are supposed to follow in any given scenario and often reference other databases or systems that might be insightful for you. 

Lastly, request the current prison population data for the county or state that you are covering. While arrest data is insightful, it is just the very beginning of a long legal process. Prison data will give you insight into not only existing racial and geographic disparities in enforcement, but can also provide context for which crimes actually lead to a conviction. 

What specific key words or phrases do you look for when reviewing documents on law enforcement officers?

Chavis: Since most of my investigative work has focused on race and class, I tend to search specifically for findings or policies related to these two demographics. For FOIA responses that are unwieldy, such as several different documents, email threads, or reports, I like to use Ctrl+F and do a baseline search for different racial ethnicities, gender identities, and geographic identifiers. I don’t specifically search for words like “poor” or “poverty,” because knowing the location of where enforcement is taking place is a much more useful context when looking into a particular issue. 

After this, I search for words like “disparity,” “increase,” and “complaint.” I’ve found city officials, and by extension police officials, tend to be laser-focused on whether crime is going up or down, and that is usually tied to some enforcement technique they are trying. 

How do you get an unresponsive agency to respond to your request? 

Chavis: Whenever I am not receiving a response to a public record request I filed, I always call the agency I’m trying to get information from and get someone on the phone. 

However, most of the time, the biggest issue I face is receiving records that are incomplete without any written explanation as to why. I often struggle to get the remaining records or data from the agency when this is the case. The number one strategy I use to combat this is to simply file the request again with the agency, and reference the original request ID and state clearly that the records I received were incomplete and in what way. Because of this, the new request I’m filing is not a duplicate — since the records were not provided in the first attempt. I’ve used this strategy several times in the past year with lots of success, likely because filing a new request starts over the legal “clock” so-to-speak, so the agency is required to respond.

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

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