Lessons from FOIA Experts
Marriage licenses, criminal history records, bankruptcy filings, 911 call transcript, emails, tax records, autopsy reports, and business payroll information — what do these all have in common?
The national epidemic of the 200,000 cold cases in America is only growing, with the most recent data telling us that in 2019 alone, 6,544 homicides went unsolved.
Now, as the popularity of the true crime genre continues to grow across media platforms, many are looking to channel their traditionally consumptive energy, and transform it to help investigate cases — and what better way to do that than learn how to harness the power of information access tools?
This year, the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s (NFOIC) virtual Freedom of Information (FOI) summit included a dozen different educational sessions, as well as two hands-on training seminars. Particularly, I was interested in the cold-case-advocacy session hosted by Ashlee Fujawa, the Co-Founder and Head of Community at Uncovered, a platform harnessing the power of collective impact to make a difference in the cold case epidemic.
The session, titled “200K Cold Cases Aren’t Going to Solve Themselves,” showcased the advocacy work of Dana Poll, the Creator and Host of True Crime P.I. Podcast, Sarah Turney, the Host of Voices for Justice and Spotify’s Disappearances, and Maggie Freleng, the Host of Murder in Alliance.
Together, these experts shared their successes and roadblocks with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests while working on their investigations. They also discussed how public influence has changed the digital presentation of case information, and they divulged their ultimate tips for filing FOIA requests.
Wait wait, what is a 'FOIA?'
I’m glad you asked! Before diving into what Dana, Sarah, and Maggie discussed with Ashlee, I want to first answer some burning questions you might have about FOIA (pronounced foy-ah) requests, beginning with, “What even is a FOIA?”
In 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law, and it’s often described as “the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government,” at the federal level, according to the Department of Justice website.
In other words, the FOIA gives a person the right to request copies of federal records not typically or freely accessible to the public. At the state and local levels, information access differs from state to state (you can check out your state’s laws here).
As a local-level example, in New York State, there’s the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) that guarantees access to state and local government documents.
For example, say you’re looking for a cold case file from the NYPD, the information you’re looking for most likely exists, and as long as giving you a copy of the file wouldn’t impede on an active investigation, you may have a right to that documentation.
You can file a Freedom of Information request with nearly every agency in America. Most agencies, like federal regulatory departments, cabinet and military departments, and local law enforcement agencies all accept requests for information and documentation.
So I can just ask for the information I’m looking for to help solve the case I’m working on?
In short, yes — but there’s no guarantee you’re going to get the records you’re looking for, whether because the information you’re looking for no longer exists, or because whatever agency you requested from denied your request since it fell within their scope of exemptions.
Particularly while investigating missing or murder cases that have been cold for decades, it’s not unreasonable to think that the information simply doesn’t exist, or isn’t able to be located anymore.
Law enforcement typically have a duty to preserve evidence, but as things get transferred to local, county, and state investigative teams, or even sent out to private people or agencies, over the years these papers, photos and documents can all be lost or destroyed.
Sometimes, information is lost on a grand-scale. In January 2015, a fire in a Brooklyn storage building tore through 85,387 boxes of records stored from courts in all five boroughs, shocking many, and losing information forever.
In short, the older a case is, the more likely that the file has been misplaced, is unable to be located, or could’ve been destroyed.
Even if the information you’re looking for does still exist, there’s no guarantee you’re privy to it — even with a FOIA request.
For example, Nassau County Police in Long Island, New York, say they maintain copies of 911 calls back to 1997, according to the New York Times. However, they’re inaccessible to the public unless a defense attorney or prosecutor makes a special subpoena for them.
For the average citizen requesting 911 logs from departments around the country, the requests are routinely denied, citing exemptions of “common sense and the potential for harm that would arise by means of disclosure,” or if disclosure “would be damaging to an individual or preclude a government agency from carrying out its duties.”
The same request denials are common for autopsy reports, case information, police interview transcripts, and much more in the law enforcement realm — citing that the case is still active, and information going out to the public would do more harm than good.
But, if your information request is denied and the information exists, not all hope is lost. You can file an administrative appeal where, after an independent review, an appellate authority will send you a response on the situation, and hopefully you can get the information you’re seeking.
The fear of a denial or trouble with a request should never hold you back from requesting information, just as it’s never held back Dana, Sarah, or Maggie.
During the NFOIC virtual Freedom of Information (FOI) summit, Dana Poll, Sarah Turney, and Maggie Freleng all shared with Ashlee Fujawa how important FOIA requests have been for them while working on their investigations.
Maggie began, eloquently summing up her expertise as an investigative journalist focusing on criminal justice and wrongful conviction cases while also being an Adjunct Professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY by simply saying: “FOIA is my life.”
She went on to explain how she uses it to gather as much information as she can on the cases she’s working on, and then publishes what’s necessary to bring justice for these cases. Right now, Maggie and Jason Baldwin (himself wrongfully convicted as a member of the West Memphis Three) are trying to help a potentially innocent man find his freedom on Murder in Alliance.
Dana also utilizes FOIA requests for her podcast True Crime PI, where she investigates missing and unidentified persons cases from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Dana’s extensive background in Journalism and Library Science has helped her when getting information — even “tid-bits” can be game changing for digital advocates, Dana shared.
“It’s so important for us to get a glimmer of new information that law enforcement would be able to get out of a file," Dana said, adding that a lot of times for cases that are so old, any piece of new information is a blessing.
For Sarah, her journey with FOIA requests was about getting information — but it was also a necessity. Sarah recounted how the Pheonix Police Department originally gave Sarah an ultimatum if she wanted to help solve her sister Alissa’s disappearance: get media attention, or no progress will be made.
After doing the circuit of documentary and podcast guest appearances, Sarah took the power of storytelling into her own hands and began the Voices for Justice Podcast to share Alissa’s story from the perspective of those who knew her best.
So, Sarah needed the whole file that the police had on her sister’s case, and when a journalist who already had all the information refused to release the documents to Sarah, she had to go through law enforcement directly.
“I had never seen my sister’s case file until just a few years ago,” Sarah said. “Them releasing this huge stack of documents to me absolutely changed my life. They were giving out interviews and a bit of information [in the past], but until I got that stack of records, it’s as if no one knew her story. That case file was the biggest blessing in my life.”
Now more than ever, public influence is changing how citizen detectives get access to information — and what they do with it.
Ashlee continued the conversation, asking, how, if at all, has the popularity of true crime as a genre changed the way citizen detectives get access to information and how law enforcement handles those requests for information.
Maggie quickly shared, “It’s greatly improved [access].”
She continued, “When you have open cases, it doesn’t look good for the department. When you have cold cases, [the police are] incentivized to provide any information that will help them close it — I think they realize that.”
Maggie added that most law enforcement officers know that citizen sleuths, podcasters and journalists will provide “tid-bits” of information to the public, helping to keep the case alive for the media, and that can be a gift for a family left without answers.
This is unfortunately something Sarah knows all too well, so she had to get creative.
“That younger audience on TikTok is powerful and very outspoken,” she shared, noting how TikTok has the ability to take stories with a popular meme twist and gain nearly instant traction. Now, Sarah has 1.1 million followers on the platform where she highlights unsolved cases and encourages others to share as much information on social media as practically and safely possible.
Dana couldn’t agree more.
“The notion of collaboration versus competition is really important in our space,” Dana added. “There’s power in numbers — 100 heads are better than one.”
Empathetic Storytelling with Sensitive Information
All of the panelists agree that once you gain access to FOIA information in a case that you’re working on, what you do with that information is incredibly important to make sure you balance empathy with not re-traumatizing a family when reporting.
Ashlee kicked off the conversation to Maggie who knows this all too well, particularly with her involvement regarding the Maura Murray investigation.
“Sometimes access doesn’t equal answers — sometimes it can lead to more speculation,” Maggie explained, adding that rumors and speculation stemming from FOIA request information can lead to law enforcement shutting down and being reluctant to offer documentation in the future.
Dana, as a digital advocate, notes that when she uses FOIA information in her podcast, she always leads with the family’s story and their perspective first — not with whatever speculative theories are abundant online.
Empathetic storytelling is Dana's superpower, and she shares that discretion when reporting is even more important when you have information that isn't publicly available. She also strategically only reports on information in her John and Jane Doe cases that will help identify the person — any other information that's simply salacious is left out.
Dana also had suggested to other content creators, “Tell the story that contains facts — that’s how we’ll bring in trust to get people to engage with the story.”
Ultimate FOIA Request Tips
Closing out the NFOIC panel, Ashlee asked each guest to share a tip that they have for citizen detectives who are looking to begin filing FOIA requests for a case they’re working on.
Maggie jumped at the opportunity, sharing, “You have to be specific in your request, because they can deny it outright and say it wasn’t specific enough.”
Dana also emphasized attention to detail when filing requests. She suggested if your FOIA request is denied, to “restate the law if you don’t agree with their denial, and just because you’re denied — go back in six months and ask again — don’t give up on a request.”
Lastly, Sarah summed up the event by imparting two pieces of advice, first suggesting that you to note in your request whether you’re working with the family of the victim because that can help with credibility and urgency in the matter.
“Be kind to the officers,” Sarah concluded. “A little bit of kindness goes a long way with these people — be persistent, be kind, and remember that these people who are processing these requests are human, just like everyone else.”
Special thank you to Ashlee Fujawa for facilitating such an important conversation! If you're looking for more resources, Uncovered has documents to help you on your information-seeking journey, from a 3-part webinar series led by the NFOIC, and much more!
See Also: A Conversation with Uncovered
You can learn more about the panelists at the links below!
Maggie Freleng, the Host of Murder in Alliance.
Dana Poll, the Creator and Host of True Crime P.I. Podcast.