The Chicago Reporter’s year in FOIA: Wins, losses and lessons

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The Freedom of Information Act is one of a reporter’s best tools and also sometimes the bane of our existence. Although both the state and federal versions of FOIA are intended to codify and enforce the presumption of transparency in government, many public agencies find ways through the law’s many exemptions, carve outs, and interpretations to obfuscate, delay and withhold sometimes very basic information from the public.

Still, we FOIA (yes, it’s a verb and a noun) regularly, sometimes to get information for a specific story already in the works and other times to “fish” for stories we think might be out there, unexplored. We succeed more often than we fail, though sometimes it takes much more work than you’d expect. Here’s a look back at the year in FOIAs at The Chicago Reporter:

In 2018, our small but scrappy team filed well over 200 FOIA requests, 10 appeals to the attorney general’s office, and one lawsuit (the lawsuit was technically filed last year, but more on that later).

We’ve sent FOIAs to more than a dozen local, state, and federal agencies, including the Chicago Police Department, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, Civilian Office of Police Accountability, Cook County Sheriff’s Office, Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, Cook County President’s Office, Cook County Medical Examiner, Illinois Department of Corrections, Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, Illinois Department of Human Services, Illinois State Board of Education, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to name just a few.

Successes

  • LaRisa Lynch obtained records of complaints about alternative energy providers from the Illinois Commerce Commission, which showed that a disproportionately high number of complaints come from the city’s poor, black and Latino neighborhoods.
  • Kalyn Belsha went back and forth with the Illinois State Board of Education for weeks before they finally provided her with their list of school districts with the highest racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. That FOIA battle was the basis for her story that the state agency was not living up to the transparency required under a 2014 law, stifling efforts at reforming school discipline practices. Thanks to our FOIA fight, they now publish this data on their website.
  • It took three tries and a successful appeal, but I finally got data from Chicago Police on arrests for aggravated battery and aggravated assault to a police officer, which I used to identify officers who file these charges more often than their peers, which could be a sign that they are using them to cover up their excessive use of force.
  • Josh McGhee only started in November, but he’s already filed more than 20 FOIAs. Most of them haven’t come back yet agencies in Illinois get at least five business days to respond but look out for some FOIA-filled stories from him in 2019.

Denials

Some of our hardest-fought FOIA battles have been with CPD and CPS, which is not surprising since they are two of the five agencies statewide whose FOIA responses are appealed the most, according to a ProPublica analysis last year.

  • In May, data editor Matt Kiefer filed a request with CPD for an updated list of sworn personnel a spreadsheet we’ve received twice in the past to help us update our database of police misconduct lawsuits. The department denied his request. He’s still waiting on a determination from the Public Access Counselor, the office under the Illinois Attorney General that reviews FOIA denials.
  • Last year, we filed a lawsuit against CPD for data from their gang database. We finally settled that lawsuit last month, after going back and forth with CPD several times about the completeness of the data they provided to us. But we’re still not satisfied with what we received so we’ve already filed a new request.
  • CPS denied Kalyn’s request for documents related to bids for closed schools, saying the deals hadn’t formally closed, even though the school board had approved them. She appealed to the Public Access Counselor, but lost. Still, she eventually got some of the documents by re-FOIAing them after the deals closed.

Lessons learned

  • Ask for a sample of data before requesting a huge payload: Sometimes just the thought of exporting a big dataset makes a FOIA officer reflexively say “we can’t do that.” Asking for a slice of data can grease the wheel and help us verify the data we’re looking for even exist in the first place. Once we know what’s available and what format it is in, we can go back for the whole dataset.
  • Don’t rely so much on the PAC: The current FOIA gives requesters two options if an agency denies or simply doesn’t respond to their request: appealing to the state’s Public Access Counselor or filing a lawsuit. For most of our appeals, we’ve relied on the PAC, but as Mick Dumke reported in ProPublica last week, the state agency has often missed deadlines and allowed public bodies to flout the law. I’m still waiting on a PAC request I filed last December. This coming year, we may take more of these cases to court.
  • Some public bodies still aren’t subject to FOIA: Most notably, offices within the judiciary are not subject to the open records law. In Cook County, that includes several critical functions within the criminal justice system: probation, pretrial services, juvenile detention and juvenile probation, among others. Chief Judge Timothy Evans has provided us with some records, including data on the use of solitary confinement in the juvenile temporary detention center. But other times, we’ve hit a brick wall, with no recourse for appealing.

Have questions about FOIA? Ideas about records you think we should request in the new year? Let us know at tcr@chicagoreporter.com.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Kalyn Belsha used bid documents CPS had initially denied to report on private schools moving into closed schools.