I Filed 136 Public Records Requests With Police and Learned Why Our System Is Broken

Over a couple of weeks this summer, I filed 136 identical public-records requests with police departments around the country. The requests were for stolen Kia/Hyundai data, but I ended up learning as much about how police departments and municipalities in general handle these requests as I did about car thefts.

I am no stranger to public records requests, which are formal requests for the release of records maintained by a government entity under applicable law. I have been filing them as a core part of my job for the last decade. I know that journalists whining about how difficult it is to pry records loose can sound more like fodder for a trade publication rather than a news story. But public records requests are how we—all of us, including everyone from ordinary people to government agencies—learn what our governments do. It is fundamental to a functioning democracy. (To pick just one recently relevant example, we learned of the true scope of Henry Kissinger’s “secret bombing campaigns in Cambodia, illegal domestic spying, support for dictators, and dirty wars abroad” while he was alive thanks to public records laws.) And processing public records requests in a timely fashion is not a difficult societal problem to solve. It is purely a matter of budgets and priorities. 

The gradual but severe reductions in institutional capacity to process records requests—combined with a lack of any enforcement mechanism to punish agencies that make it a matter of policy to ignore them—is a symptom of a larger disease of a government increasingly unresponsive to the people it supposedly serves. Whether you’re a believer that only a small government is compatible with individual liberty, a socialist fighting the police state, or anywhere in between, public records laws are how you hold your government accountable. 

The most well-known public records law is the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law applying to the executive branch that has existed since 1966 and was significantly strengthened in the 1970s following Watergate and other national scandals on abuse of power. Following the federal government’s lead, each state has enacted its own public records law that applies to state and local agencies. They are sometimes called freedom of information laws, but also go by public records laws or open records laws or right to know laws. They’re all the same thing. The fundamental theory of all these laws is that in the United States, the government works for the people, and therefore the people have the right to know what the government is doing.

But, like most laws, the theory of the laws is often very different from the practice. There are important variations in the laws between states. Some state laws are more likely to result in getting documents in a timely fashion than others. For example, agencies in Michigan are more likely than elsewhere to cite exorbitant fees for producing requested records which is an effective way to undermine transparency. New York’s Freedom of Information Law has glaring loopholes that make it trivially easy for agencies to ignore your request in perpetuity without the aid of a lawsuit. Agencies in Texas are almost shockingly responsive, but are prone to abuse a provision that allows the state attorney general to review any request for potential exemptions to disclosure rules. Pennsylvania’s law seems to encourage agencies to still use paper forms. And the differing laws encourage differing cultures. In Florida, records officers will generally look for a way to get you what you’re looking for. California records officers seem to look for reasons not to.

Usually, journalists file one or two requests at a time. Sometimes filing an identical request with all 50 state agencies, such as every state department of corrections or department of education, will also make sense for a specific story. In my experience, though, such requests are usually fishing expeditions; you’re hoping a couple of states give you useful responses but expect most to deny or ignore your request.

This is what made the Kia/Hyundai requests I filed different. I have never before filed so many identical requests in so many cities across so many states at the same time, resulting in a natural experiment in just how much responses can vary. Plus, I was not asking for anything speculative, voluminous, or difficult. Stolen vehicles are incredibly common types of police reports and there are federal standards for how such reports should be logged. (For those curious, I had to file the requests city-by-city because vehicle manufacturer is not included in aggregate statistics publicly posted by most departments.) Also, I was not asking for any potentially private information that would need to be reviewed for possible redactions. In theory, this was a basic request that most police departments should have been able to complete with minimal effort.

It has been about four months since I filed these 136 requests. Of those, 67 agencies, or almost exactly half, have provided the full records I asked for. (One, the Houston Police Department, provided records but the data is absurd, likely due to a bad database pull; it has not responded to several emails asking for the correct data). Of the ones that didn’t, 18 charged fees I wasn’t willing to pay, rejected my request and refused to explain why, had both broken online forms that made it impossible to file a request and no one at the city office willing to help, or, due to extraordinary circumstances, truly didn’t have the records I sought. The rest, or 51 police departments, have not responded to my request.

(This is illegal under most if not all state public records laws, which at minimum specify that an agency has to respond to a requester within a certain timeframe, which varies from place to place. There appear, though, to be no consequences for anyone who chooses to wad requests up and use them to play trashcan basketball.) 

With all this in mind, here is what I learned about the state of local public records requests in 2023.

The Two Contractors to Rule Them All

The vast majority of requests I had to file required filling out forms through two portals: GovQA and Nextrequest, both purpose-built software for public records request management. Despite using the same two platforms for almost every city, I had to create a separate login for each city. On some level this makes sense, because each city is a separate client and it wouldn’t make sense for them to share the same user base. But it was annoying as hell.

This wouldn’t have been a huge problem if the portals were set up to accept an open-access standard that would let users log in with, say, a Gmail account, or even if setting up a new account was easy. Unfortunately, for GovQA, it wasn’t. A huge chunk of the time required to file these requests was dealing with GovQA’s buggy site. Often, it would auto-generate a new password it said it would email to me to verify my account, but then never did. I would then have to go through the “forgot password” process to get yet another new password. That would also often fail. Commonly, CAPTCHA codes straight up wouldn’t load and there was no CAPTCHA-specific refresh button, so I’d have to refresh the entire page, which wouldn’t save any of the information I had already put in, and essentially start over. Managing ongoing requests was also annoying as forms take forever to load.

NextRequest is a lot better. Setting up a new account could be done after filing the request by just adding a password. However, both platforms have worse-than-useless AI-like features that try to suggest help pages that either explain why your request won’t be fulfilled or otherwise trying to convince you not to file it. These pages are rarely even in the ballpark of the same topic I was filing about. But I had to dismiss the prompt before filing the request. It was a small example of how AI is accelerating the enshittification of the web experience.

I did encounter a third contractor a few times that was the best of the bunch, called JustFOIA. It offered a Google Forms-like experience that was fast to load, easy to use, and at no point wanted to make me stab my eyes out with chopsticks.

What Century Is This?

I had numerous experiences while filing these 136 requests that made me wonder what century I was living in or otherwise did not seem congruent with a high-tech 21st century life.

As I previously mentioned, Pennsylvania’s Right To Know Law appears unique in encouraging agencies to use a paper form, or a PDF equivalent. To file my request with the city of Pittsburgh, I had to fill out a Word document and email it back to them. Other Pennsylvania cities used PDF forms. Public records requests are uniquely annoying to fill out via PDF form because they usually provide two or three lines max for the entire description of your request, which is not nearly enough for any sufficiently detailed records request. It is a form designed to make the request impossible to fulfill. (This is at least better than the many rural agencies that specify they will accept requests only via facsimile machine.) 

Similarly, Corpus Christi, Texas has a field for “what records are you requesting” on its online form with a character limit of 130 and no option for an attachment. In other words, the text of your request had to be shorter than a tweet.

Irvine, CA had a peculiar form. A fax number is a required field. And the Are You A Human Test for me was the math question 5 + 4 = .

Take that, ChatGPT!

Sometimes, cities had what I would describe as borderline extralegal FOIA submission processes. Lincoln, Nebraska doesn’t have a FOIA page at all. I emailed the city clerk instead. Scottsdale, Arizona tries to make you pay a $10 fee simply to file a request. Salt Lake City informed me that “IDENTIFICATION is REQUIRED to receive Documents” and prompted me to upload a photo of my ID (I did not, but received the requested records anyways). Glendale, Arizona charged me a $10 “file transfer fee” I could not avoid.

A handful of states only accept records requests from residents of that state. According to Muckrock, a non-profit collaborative that provides a tool for filing and managing records requests, five states definitely have residency requirements—Virginia, Tennessee, Delaware, Arkansas, and Missouri—while Alabama and Georgia sometimes do. I had no problem getting Kia/Hyundai data from Atlanta, for example, but every Virginia city except Newport News cited its residency requirement after I filed my request. I had proxies in those states file requests on my behalf, which is perfectly legal. In addition to being inherently inane, undemocratic, and easy to circumvent, residency requirements make even less sense in the 21st century than they did in the 20th, in which the practices of one state government quite obviously have implications for residents in other states, too. 

Although I did eventually get the requested records from Washington, D.C., it was a real pain. The police department closed my request with no records or reason for determination. I tried to submit a question via the Message system in the GovQA portal asking why. It gave me an error message noting that I was not allowed to use special characters. I then proceeded to whittle down my message so it had no punctuation whatsoever, but still got the same error message. Once I spoke to a human at MPD, everything was sorted in rapid fashion.

For whatever reason, I had a lot of trouble with North Carolina cities. Most denied my request by citing a specific statute in the state’s law that states, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to require a public agency to respond to a request for a copy of a Public Record by creating or compiling a record that does not exist.” As they interpreted it, by asking for a data extraction from a database into a spreadsheet, I was asking for them to create a new record. This interpretation is not in accordance with how federal courts have interpreted the law—”[The court] agree[s] that using a query to search for and extract a particular arrangement or subset of data already maintained in an agency's database does not amount to the creation of a new record." I dutifully reminded them of this. 

My experience with Raleigh is emblematic. One hour after I submitted my records request to Raleigh, someone from their communications department told me, “There are not any responsive public records.” When I asked how this was possible—did Raleigh simply not collect stolen vehicle data?— I was referred to the aforementioned state law provision on creating new records. After I informed them of the applicable case law, I received radio silence, but then two weeks later received a spreadsheet of all the data I had requested in full. But most other North Carolina cities just ignored me. Thanks, Raleigh!

But nothing will top the response I got from Montgomery, Alabama. Randy Weaver, the record retention manager for the city, sent me an email that stated in its entirety: “You did not complete the record request properly. Your request is denied.” I asked, “Can you please inform me what was filled out improperly so I can re-submit in proper fashion?” I am still waiting to hear back from Mr. Weaver.

So What?

A 50% response rate after four months for a simple data pull that each of the departments is legally required to fulfill could be interpreted as either a success or failure, depending on your expectations. By the expectations of public records requests, gathering a usable dataset that has been released to the public, it was a success

But it is worth putting this relative success in perspective. Many of the nation’s biggest cities and best-funded police departments have thus far ignored my request. This includes but is not limited to New York, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Jacksonville, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Seattle, Nashville, Boston, Detroit, and Baltimore. 

Delays are the most common complaints regarding public records requests. As with justice, transparency delayed is transparency denied. In this case, I was trying to assemble a complete national picture of how a design decision made by a multinational company was resulting in surging vehicle thefts. The companies blame social media. Did that defense hold water? The data could tell us, if only we had them. 

Again, it is worth emphasizing this is for the most basic and least controversial records request imaginable. It’s nothing compared to requests for emails, text messages, presentations, memos, etc. regarding something actually controversial. If they can’t produce these records in a timely fashion, what can they produce?

It is no secret that public record laws in the U.S. don’t function as they ought to. Sometimes they work great. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that records are released less in accordance with what the law says and more with what individual bureaucrats feel like. Public records departments are often treated internally as annoyances, distractions, and in some extreme but by no means universal cases, rubber rooms for civil servants who can’t be fired. Rarely are they given the resources and adequate staffing needed to do their jobs well. On some occasions I have had the genuine, true pleasure of working with public servants in records departments who wanted to help and were able to do so. I have a fleeting glimpse of what my job and our democracy might look like if this was more universally the case. And then I go back to work.  


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