We've obtained millions of law enforcement records by filing hundreds of public records requests in jurisdictions across the United States. Requesting public records is an often confusing and frustrating undertaking. To help others navigate this process, we've put together a short guide to help you get the information you’re entitled to.
Step 1: Find out WHO has the records you’re looking for. If it’s about police behavior, policies, inventories, reports, body or dashcam footage or other information directly related to the police department, that’s where you’ll send your request. Depending on your location, things can get tricky if you’re looking for legal documents like citations, tickets, warrants. Those documents might be kept by local courts. Double check whose jurisdiction your records fall under before filing.
Step 2: Determine WHICH records you’re looking for. The department won’t CREATE a record for you, so you have to be very careful to ask for exactly what you’re looking for, in the language that THAT department uses. For example, if you’re looking for a list of arrests made on a certain day, and the department doesn’t already publish that information, find out what language they use, like “booking reports,” “arrest reports,” or “jail inmate roster.” If you want demographic information, ask directly for race, age, gender, or any other fields you need. You CANNOT ask the department “why” something happened. You can’t ask them for an explanation for certain behavior. You can only ask for records that already exist.
Step 3: Write out your request. Always start your request by citing the open records law in your states. For example, “Pursuant to the California Public Records Act, I hereby request.” Then list out the records you want, as discussed in Step 2. Be sure to also include alternate names for things if you know of any. If you are a member of the public or a journalist, say so, and ask for a fee waiver. Note that you’ll want an itemized cost estimate if a fee waiver is not available. Give the agency a deadline based on your state’s law: In California, a response is required within 10 days. Include the format you’re requesting your information in: paper, digital, or in-person examination. If asking for digital data, specify the file type you are looking for. And finally, include contact information and invite the agency to call you with any clarifying questions. Depending on what you are asking for, you can also note that you will accept a partial fulfillment of your request if some information is protected or unavailable.
Step 4: Send it to the RIGHT person. Go to your local police department’s website and look for their public records or police reports section. Some jurisdictions have a form you fill out — if this is the case, copy and paste your letter into the description box, and write “NA” for any fields that are not applicable. Even if the department asks you to use a form, you can still send in the request via email or mail. Some jurisdictions have a direct public records email. Include your request in both the body of the email, and attach it as a PDF. In the subject line, write: Timely: Public Records Request. Finally, some places will require you to mail in your request. Note that for those jurisdictions, it may take longer to get a response. If you can’t find a dedicated email for the police records clerk, look for the police chief’s email, or a public information officer. In a few places in the United States, you’ll request from the city instead of the police department directly. If you can’t figure out where to send your request, email us for help at email@example.com.
Step 5: Check in regularly via phone or email if you don’t hear from the department after the state-mandated time period, or if you don’t hear from them after the initial request. Many jurisdictions might be hoping you forget about your request. If they issue you a denial, ask for a specific reason why, and appeal it or file a new request within the parameters they laid out. If they respond with an expensive cost estimate, ask for details.
Things to consider with cost estimates: First, you can push back. If they are citing costs per page, note you are asking for electronic versions. If they cite programming time, ask what programming specifically they are doing. Ask for an entire field to be redacted vs. record by record redactions, for example. Note that the government must cite the state exemption that applies for any redactions. Additionally, the cost of redaction is typically borne by the government.
More Resources For Open Records Requests: Here are some of the resources we've used that offer detailed and wide-reaching support for all kinds of records requests.
Requesting public records can be a laborous process, and often a frustrating one. With patience and persistence, and by familiarizing yourself with local laws, you’re more likely to get the records you’re looking for. If you get stuck, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll try to help. Good luck!