Freedom of Information Act updates

As I predicted in the Odds Against Tomorrow section of Why FE Exists, the FBI has responded to my less restrictive Freedom of Information Act request.

In the Why FE Exists post, I claimed government agencies have strategies to delay responding to requests in order to prevent the media scrutiny that results from the release of public information. Essentially, the agencies assume media outfits’ inability to carry on long projects. These results illustrate that assumption.

In the request made in December 2012, I asked that the agency provide me with a “searchable database of all agencies that participated/reported in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report for 2011.” The FBI denied my request on the basis that “the FOIA does not require federal agencies to answer inquiries, create records, conduct research, or draw conclusion concerning queried data.”

As you can see from the two sets of documents provided, the mailing list database did exist. While the second request was technically answered, it was answered in a way that makes the results nearly useless–even to the extent of squeezing some spreadsheets into vertical 8.5-inch-by-11-inch pages to make the data that much more difficult to work with. The results do make obvious, though, that the very database I asked for, which may have been denied on the basis that it would have to be created, was simply redacted, printed out, and scanned into unsearchable PDFs.

Let me state categorically: In most smaller news outlets, the combination of the length of time between request and response, the provision of “static” data, and the muddying of presentation would have been enough to undermine, if not kill, any investigation.

It’s ironic: The Freedom of Information Act was designed to enable public investigations and foster transparency in government. This systemic delay and obfuscation when journalists properly use the act–since the FOIA is generally the preferred method of dispensing or retrieving this information–neutralizes investigations and allows government to operate in the shadows.

Government employees who go around this process for patriotic reasons have even been prosecuted. In fact, many embarrassing “leaks” are simply information provided outside proscribed channels, and the Obama administration has indicted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined. I’ll be honest, though, the fact that this information was released to me as “public” eases my mind a bit. While I believe I’m one of the few people outside of government who has access to it at this moment, at least I have no reason to think it’s classified.

Fortunately, I got lucky. In my ongoing efforts to get the information I need to make public records requests of individual agencies regarding people who died through encounters with police, I came across an agency called the Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, which lives under the same umbrella department as the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice. Its job is to do about what its name implies, every four years, the agency takes a census of law enforcement in the United States. I simply called Brian A. Reaves, senior statistician for the Law Enforcement Unit of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which heads up the census, explained what I was up to, and asked whether I could get the mailing list. “Sure, you want me to email it to you?” Ten days later and after a reminder phone call, it arrived in my inbox on May 22. It’s a huge spreadsheet with some 17,986 rows of data.

Since my strategy includes making public records requests of all U.S. law enforcement agencies, and every state has its own rules for responding to public records requests, it’s my plan to post the spreadsheet in a relational database so I and others can download mailing addresses in discrete sections, say zip codes or counties or states, and query based on the local laws. I’m afraid SQL and PHP are beyond my programming skills, but one of my associates is working on it, and we hope to get it and a method of posting, updating and analyzing fatal encounters with police posted in the next few days. Weeks, anyway.

So, does the information itself produce any useful tidbits? Sort of. For one, reporters have asked the FBI to name the agencies that don’t participate in the voluntary Uniform Crime Report. All someone would have to do is compare what the FBI gave me to what the CSLLEA did, and the agencies missing from the FBI document will yield most of the nonparticipants. That’s not my focus, and believe me, I have my hands full. There is a lot of other interesting data for analysis on the CSLLEA spreadsheet, but Dr. Reaves already analyzed it for you.