A Beginner’s Guide to Requesting Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Public Records Spotlight PA

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Disputes over public records hit an all-time high last year, with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records reporting 322 calls involving local and state police departments out of nearly 3,000 for all government agencies.

The Office of Open Records is an independent state agency that oversees and adjudicates appeals for public records requests if denied by a state or local government. Last year, the third consecutive year cases rose, the office received 2,990 appeal filings.

Liz Wagenseller, just a year and a half into her six-year term as executive director of the office, said she doesn’t see this “new normal” waning anytime soon.

“I think the audience is more engaged,” Wagenseller said. “They’re more enraged, a bit, and a bit less confident in institutions in general.”

COVID-19 cases, public school funding and election data have been among the most popular topics for public records requests since 2020, Wagenseller said. Law enforcement information was also a common interest among requesters.

Pennsylvania State Police told Spotlight PA that the number of public records requests filed with the agency has increased every year since 2016, with 1,890 requests filed last year alone.

The OOR saw calls for state police information nearly double from 2019 to 2020, according to its 2021 annual report. Calls for records denied by local police departments increased further, from 141 in 2019 to 366 in 2020. These figures remained stable in 2021.

Nearly half of all calls last year were made by residents, according to the annual report.

Spotlight PA spoke with Wagenseller and other public records experts to outline best practices for people who want to make the most of right-to-know law to learn more about their law enforcement agencies. local and national law.

Know the law

Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Act determines access to public information by state and local government agencies, including law enforcement. A guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press details the law.

Although the Right to Know Act governs access to most law enforcement records, requests for police video and audio recordings are governed by another law, Act 22. 2017 requires that requests for these records be made within 60 days of their creation and include information about the record and the requestor.

What can I ask?

Incident reports, criminal records and crime data are among the most common documents requested from law enforcement, Wagenseller said, but residents can request a variety of other documents, from policy manuals and training on past right-to-know requests.

Financial reports are the easiest documents to get from law enforcement agencies, said Paula Knudsen Burke, a Pennsylvania-based attorney for the Journalists Committee for Press Freedom.

However, there are a few exceptions — records that agencies aren’t required to make public — that can make it difficult to get information about law enforcement, Burke said.

Any information related to an investigation is exempt under the right to know law, even if the case is closed or dates back decades, Burke said. In 2014, for example, a Pennsylvania journalist was denied access to records of an unsolved murder at a Penn State University library in 1969.

If the release of a file could threaten public safety or reveal the identity of an undercover agent, it is also exempt. A 2011 appeal case denied a plaintiff access to the Pennsylvania State Police’s policy regarding confidential informants on those same grounds, Burke said.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania files dozens of records requests a year as part of its advocacy and investigative efforts, said Jessica Li, who covers the organization’s criminal justice policy. Anticipate exemptions an agency might claim to help resolve their claim preemptively. For example, although the new Pennsylvania Police Misconduct Database is not public under the right to know law, residents can still request employment reports for officers with a history of misconduct. serious misconduct.

Even though the records are exempt, the Right to Know Act states that an agency can “exercise its discretion” and make the information public if it is not prohibited by state or local law. federal. Burke suggests proactively asking an agency to “use its discretion” if the request involves a recording that is exempt.

Do your homework

Doing research before submitting a records request increases the chances of getting the information you seek, Burke said.

First, make sure the records you’re looking for exist and find out which agency holds them. Some information may already be available on agency websites.

Many agencies have an open case manager responsible for handling right-to-know requests. The OOR website provides the name and contact details of many agents and can be a good place to start.

An easily avoidable mistake that Burke and Wagenseller see plaintiffs making is asking a question instead of asking for records. Instead of asking how much a police department spent on something and why, for example, Wagenseller said a right-to-know request should ask for expenditure records.

Although a request can search for multiple years of data, Wagenseller said it must be “specific enough”. Include the subject, scope, and time frame in the request, if possible. She said asking for “any” record on a subject would likely result in a denial, both initially and on appeal.

“You can’t go on a fishing trip with a net, you have to go with a hook,” Wagenseller said, remembering a saying she had heard before. “You can’t ask for everything under the sun.”

Right-to-know requests can be submitted in person, by mail or by email using a standard form. Be sure to include how you would like the recordings viewed in person or received copies by email or mail, as well as your preferred file format.

How to appeal

Under the Right to Know Act, agencies must respond to a request for records within five business days. If they need more time to compile the information, they can request a 30-day extension.

Agencies can deny a request in whole or in part, and information can be redacted based on one of the exemptions listed in the law.

If an applicant feels that a denial or deletion is unfair, they can file an appeal with the ROB within 15 working days.

The OOR’s 2021 annual report shows that of the 2,384 appeals filed against local agencies, 10.5% were against police departments. Calls involving the state police and the Department of Corrections accounted for 30.6% of calls from state agencies.

Staying organized in the appeals process is important, Wagenseller said. Residents should be aware of the deadlines for filing an appeal before submitting a request for records. According to OOR data, about 9% of appeals on law enforcement cases were dismissed because they were filed too early or too late.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania frequently appeals denials of its requests and is often able to negotiate to get the records it wants, Li said. She encouraged residents not to be intimidated by the appeals process. , which is free and does not require a lawyer.

More resources

To learn more about the Right to Know Act and public records requests, Wagenseller suggests perusing the OOR’s online record search. Looking at the results of other cases can help you understand which requests are granted, she said.

Although OOR staff can give advice or answer general questions about the right to know law, they cannot provide legal advice such as how to make a request and whether they think it will be granted.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania also explains the right to know law on its website. He recently held a workshop on the law in conjunction with the OOR and will hold more in the future if public demand increases, Li said.

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