How To: Finesse the FOIA

Let’s talk about FOIA. FOIA, or Freedom of Information Act, is a piece of legislation that allows any citizen to request public information from their town, city, state, or federal governments. It’s what lets any typical person find out, for example, how many arrests have taken place in the last month, or if that new diner down the street actually passed their health inspection. These requests also typically have a time limit: officials must get the information back to you within a certain period of time, if they can send it to you at all.

Unfortunately, however, while FOIA ensures all citizens access to public information, it’s not uncommon for people to run into obstacles when trying to receive said information; which is where this handy guide comes in!

In my FOIA request journey, I was initially looking to analyze any sort of data that had to do with the demographics of people who are normally stopped by Boston Police officers. I wrote up my request and emailed it to BPD after going to the public records request page on their website. In my request, I unknowingly used the phrase “stop and frisk” when trying to find out how many people got stopped by my local police department in the last month. I later learned that this term has a lot of history.  As a result, I was told their officers don’t use stop and frisk and only approach people if they have probable cause in their reply. Even after I backtracked and asked for the instances in which officers used probable cause, it was too late. The bridge had been burnt. Through this experience, I’ve put together three of my most important pieces of advice when navigating the FOIA process.

Arguably the most important tip I can give to anyone trying to FOIA some information is: try not to offend the person you’re writing your request to! Seems easy enough, but word choice really is everything (as seen from my “stop and frisk” mishap). I really cannot stress enough the importance of being polite, even aggressively polite, and keeping your audience in mind at all times. Think about who you are speaking to and the possible reactions they may have to your word choice and the way you phrase your request; otherwise, the information you request will take a long, long time, or even not come at all.

Be courteous. Writing a rather rude letter may even cause the person reading your request to give you your information at the very last second when they weren’t even planning on stalling you in the first place. While the people reading your request may stall you for various different reasons (which we’ll address later), the FOIA process may be even the tiniest bit easier if you’re, at the very least, polite.

My final piece of advice: be persistent. While requesting public information is your right under FOIA, that doesn’t mean the people reading your request can’t make the process as difficult as possible. The person reading your request, no matter how polite you are, may try to opt out on a technicality, send you information at the very last second, or not send it at all in an effort to keep that information out of your hands. Don’t let them. Follow up (nicely) if you must, and remember your rights! FOIA away!

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