This is the first in a series of blog posts on lessons learned since I began my FOIA journey.
TL;DR: Go straight to the source. Learn if there is an agency that serves as a central repository for the information you are seeking, and send the request to them.
I first became enthralled by the idea of obtaining government records in late 2013. I don’t remember exactly what initially thrust me into the FOIA world; it was likely some amalgamation of feeling duped by conspiracy theorists who always allude to documents without ever producing any, feeling invigorated by the journalism made possible by the Snowden disclosures, and a renewed sense of the importance of the scientific method.
Whatever the cause(s) of my sudden fascination with FOIA, I decided to bite the bullet and file my first request with the Boston Police Department. (I’d later learn that they are one of the worst agencies out there when it comes to obtaining public records.) I was fascinated — and horrified — by the apparent militarization of police across the United States, in part thanks to a previously obscure initiative called the 1033 Program. Run by the Department of Defense, this wholly innocent and certainly-not-ominous program allows any law enforcement agency in the U.S. to request surplus military supplies from the Pentagon — anything from night vision goggles, to revolvers, rifles, and yes, Bearcats — to aid them in fighting the War on Drugs and terrorism.
It doesn’t sound so bad until you take into account the fact that terrorism is rare while virtually everyone does — or could be suspected of doing — illegal drugs of one kind or another. Add to this the fact that, at least in Massachusetts, equipment obtained through 1033 must be used within one year, and you can see how cops patrolling neighborhoods with military gear became a thing.
(Later in 2014, this new trend was on full display when protests erupted after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Demonstrators taking to the streets found themselves blocked off by hordes of officers who could have been mistaken for an invading army. A national conversation ensued about whether or not we are all right with weapons of war in the hands of our local police, during which it was apparently decided that, yeah, it’s fine. The Obama administration implemented some additional restrictions on what equipment can be obtained, but it’s mostly still the same.)
Ok, back to the first request. I wanted to know what the Boston Police Department had obtained through 1033. The only problem was that I didn’t actually know if they had received anything; I was going off a hunch. Two days after filing that request, I submitted an identical one to my hometown’s police department, going off an even smaller, more improbable, hunch. That same day, I submitted a request to the Mass State Police, the only request out of the bunch to actually produce anything.
But what I obtained taught me a very important lesson, that I will share with you now. I had simply wanted to learn what the state police had obtained through 1033. Instead, I learned what every law enforcement agency in the state received through the program, including the state police.
This is because every state in the country has a state coordinator — and Massachusetts’ is the state police — something I could have learned with a little background research. With a little bit of effort, I could have saved the time it took to file those other requests.
It was like I was tracing my finger along the edge of a circle trying to determine its circumference; it’s more efficient to go straight to the center and find the radius. Once you learn the size of the circle, you learn exactly which points (think government agencies) fall within it.
There’s another advantage to this approach: you may learn more than you intended to, and that’s a good thing. I had only set out to learn what equipment was in the hands of the police departments in the towns I resided in; not only did I find out that those two police departments apparently acquired nothing, but I learned that the West Springfield Police Department somehow thought it necessary to possess two grenade launchers which they admitted to never using, in violation of the rules.
And that, my friends, spawned my first published article.
Another way to state FOIA Lesson #1: There is no “TMI” in FOIA.