What is a FOIA request?

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1967, allows the public to request records from federal agencies. Upon request, an executive branch agency must disclose the information, unless it falls within an exemption or exclusion. There are 9 exemptions, most of which are used to protect privacy, national security, and law enforcement. The 3 exclusions protect even narrower categories of law enforcement (ongoing criminal investigations and identities of informants) and national security (FBI intelligence). 

States have their own version of FOIA laws. These are also known as "open records laws," "public records laws,” and "sunshine laws." You can find information about your state’s particular FOIA law here or here. The content of these laws vary by state, but the idea is to promote greater government transparency. 

How do I make a FOIA request?

First, figure out who you’re seeking records from—for example, is it a city police department or a state department of corrections? You want to contact whichever agency has the records you want. Some cities have online FOIA portals, like Wichita, where you can submit your request by filling out an online form. Most cities and states allow you to submit a FOIA request via email, and they have websites dedicated to explaining what information you need to include, where to send your request, and even a sample request form. For example, the City of Chicago and Chicago Police Department each have dedicated FOIA pages with sample request forms. When in doubt, use the FOIA request template provided by your city or state. Make sure you’re as specific as possible when describing the type of records and always give a specific date range. Once you submit a FOIA request, you should receive a confirmation email or message. State law governs how long the agency has to respond to your request, usually 2-20 days. However, actual response rates vary by state. 


  • FOIA request to Chicago Police Board for disciplinary records of an officer
  • FOIA request to Chicago Police Department for an incident or arrest report



What’s the difference between criminal and civil law as it relates to officer liability? 

“When a police killing occurs, authorities have two choices for possible [criminal] prosecution: a murder or manslaughter case in state court, or a criminal civil rights violation in federal court.” 

First, an officer can be liable for a crime, like murder or manslaughter, in violation of state law. State laws specify under what circumstances an officer can use lethal force, which effectively operates as a self-defense provision. For example, in Minnesota, an officer can use deadly force when it is objectively reasonable to prevent imminent death or bodily harm. Ultimately, it is up to prosecutors to decide when to pursue a criminal charge. Yet, prosecutors may be reluctant to charge officers given the nature of their job, and similarly, juries may be reluctant to convict officers, especially when the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. 

The other (less common) option for criminal liability is the federal law enforcement misconduct statute, which is enforced by the US Department of Justice. Under § 242, it is a crime for an officer acting in official capacity to deprive someone of their constitutional rights; this can include use of excessive force. “The government must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) that the defendant deprived a victim of a right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States, (2) that the defendant acted willfully, and (3) that the defendant was acting under color of law.” One of the biggest challenges in meeting this criminal standard is that second element of intent--that an officer must have truly intended to engage in conduct that he or she actually knew was illegal. Moreover, “beyond a reasonable doubt” requires the government to meet a very high burden of proof. The purpose of holding an officer criminally liable is punishment, either through imprisonment or sanctions. 

Civil liability for officers is different than criminal liability: Under § 1983, a victim has a private right of action against an officer who violated his or her constitutional rights. The elements of this type of civil claim are 1) violation of a constitutional or statutorily protected federal right; 2) the officer acted under color of law; 3) plaintiff suffered damages. This is similar to the § 242 criminal law, except under § 1983 civil law, there is no mental state requirement for the officer, and the burden of proof is by a preponderance of evidence, which requires less than beyond a reasonable doubt. The purpose of civil liability is generally to provide monetary relief to the plaintiff, rather than punish the officer. However, the judicially-created doctrine of qualified immunity imposes additional requirements that need to be met in order for a plaintiff to be successful in a § 1983 claim. Namely, the officer needs to have violated “clearly established law.” 



What is an autopsy? How long does it take, and how do I obtain one?

“An autopsy, also known as a post-mortem examination, is a specialized surgical procedure used to determine the cause and manner of death. The cause of death is the medical reason explaining why a patient passed. The manner of death is the circumstances surrounding the death,” such as “natural, accident, homicide, [or] suicide.” In an officer-involved death, a pathologist at the state or county Medical Examiner’s Office will conduct a forensic autopsy. In addition to cause and manner of death, this includes identifying the decedent (deceased person) and time of death, as well as evaluating the toxicology of the body. Autopsies are usually conducted within 24 hours of death, and they take around 2-4 hours to complete. Final reports are available 30-90 days later. 

Autopsy disclosure laws vary from state to state: you can find a table with laws for 26 states here. Usually access to autopsies is limited to the decedent’s family members and attorney, as well as certain law enforcement agencies. In some states, like Louisiana and Texas, autopsy reports are considered public records, but photographs taken during them are confidential. Autopsy requests go through your county’s (e.g. Cook County, Illinois) or state’s (e.g. Iowa) Office of the Medical Examiner. Visit their website for instructions on how to submit an autopsy request and what needs to be included. Sometimes the office will charge a small fee, and the report will be mailed or emailed to you. 




Data and Databases

Mapping Police Violence

This map tracks killings by the police across the country since 2013. In doing so, it seeks to uncover the true scale of police violence, identify patterns, and monitor trends towards progress. The data is sourced from FatalEncounters.org, the U.S. Police Shootings Database, and KilledbyPolice.net and also includes original research to identify the race of the victims. This is the most comprehensive database, documenting over 8,000 killings, including all means of killings (not just shootings) by both on and off-duty police officers. It is estimated that this database captures 92% of all police killings since 2013. 

Settling For Misconduct | Chicago Reporter

This database tracks police misconduct settlements in Chicago that were paid out from January 1, 2011 – March 31, 2017. The data comes from Judgment and Settlement Payment Requests published by the City of Chicago’s Law Department. You can search by incident type or by police officer. Searching by officer allows you to see which officers have been named in misconduct lawsuits and how much their cases settled for. 

The Stanford Open Policing Project

Researchers and journalists at Stanford University, through the Stanford Open Policing Project, are “gathering, analyzing, and releasing records from millions of traffic stops by law enforcement agencies across the country. [Their] goal is to help researchers, journalists, and policymakers investigate and improve interactions between police and the public.” They’ve gathered 200 million records so far. 

Police Data Initiative

“The Police Data Initiative promotes the use of open data to encourage joint problem solving, innovation, enhanced understanding, and accountability between communities and the law enforcement agencies that serve them.” 130 law enforcement agencies have shared data on categories such as accidents, hate crimes, and use of force. See if your local police department has contributed. 

Citizens Police Data Project | Invisible Institute

“The Citizens Police Data Project (CPDP.co) is a tool for holding police accountable to the public they serve. CPDP takes records of police interactions with the public – records that would otherwise be buried in internal databases – and opens them up to make the data useful to the public, creating a permanent record for every CPD police officer.” This interactive map shows complaints of different kinds of police misconduct across Chicago from 1988 until today. This is a project of the Invisible Institute, a non-profit organization that compiles research on police officers in Chicago and their history of complaints against citizens.

Erase the Database

This website is dedicated to the Chicago Gang Database: what it is, how it’s used, how to check if you’re on it, and how to #erasethedatabase. It even includes a FOIA tool created by Beyond Legal Aid. 

Police Shootings Database 2015-2020 | Washington Post

The Washington Post has collected data on every fatal police shooting in the country since 2015. Their sources are news articles, police reports, and social media. This page outlines trends from the data. You can also search their database and filter by criteria such as race, state, body camera, year, etc. 



Toolkits, reports, policies, and other resources

New Era of Public Safety: A Guide to Fair, Safe, and Effective Community Policing 

This 2019 report was prepared by The Leadership Conference Education Fund, the education and research arm of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “This report was developed to give individuals, communities, activists, advocacy organizations, law makers, and police departments the knowledge to carry out this important work” of police reform. “[T]he ultimate goal is fair, safe, and effective policing that respects and protects human life and ensures safety for all.” The report includes over 100 specific policy recommendations to reform policing in the 21st century. They are broken down into 12 categories: community policing; bias-free policing; stops, searches, and arrests; use of force; responding to crises; First Amendment and free speech; accountability; data, information, and video footage; leadership and culture; recruitment, hiring, promotion, and retention; academy and in-service training; officer health, well-being, and safety. Read the executive summary or the full report. 

New Era of Public Safety: Toolkit

This advocacy toolkit accompanies the guide for effective community policing; it is “intended to empower communities to hold police departments accountable by working together to address problems and to find the best way forward to coproduce public safety.” It is educational, inspirational, and provides additional resources to get involved and learn more. 

Fighting Police Abuse: A Community Action Manual | American Civil Liberties Union

For the past 100 years, the “The ACLU [has] committed to fight[ing] for freedom and the protection of constitutional rights.” Although this community action manual was written in 1997, its characterization of the problem of police abuse and proposed strategies and solutions are still relevant today. 

Toolkit for Equitable Public Safety | Center for Policing Equity

“This Toolkit was created to help community groups assess and identify specific areas for improvement and reform in their local law enforcement agencies.” It was created in 2020 by the Center for Policing Equity in collaboration with PolicyLink. The Center for Policing Equity is a nonprofit think tank that uses an evidence-based approach to achieving equity and inclusiveness in law enforcement. “PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity by Lifting Up What Works.”

Resources in the Fight Against Police Brutality and Systemic Racism | Pitchfork


7 Anti-Police Brutality Organizations You Can Support Right Now

These are (non-exhaustive) lists of organizations combatting police brutality and racism, including what they do and how you can donate or get involved. 

Case Law 4 Cops

This website has information on police-related case law. It is targeted towards both officers and citizens, explaining what officers can and cannot do in particular jurisdictions. 

George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020

The George Floyd Justice In Police Act was introduced by Rep. Karen Bass, Sen. Corey Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler in June 2020 as a comprehensive federal police reform bill. Under the Act, “for the first time ever federal law would: 1) ban chokeholds; 2) end racial and religious profiling; 3) eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement; 4) establish national standard for the operation of police departments; 5) mandate data collection on police encounters; 6) reprogram existing funds to invest in transformative community-based policing programs; and 7) streamline federal law to prosecute excessive force and establish independent prosecutors for police investigations.” The bill was passed in the House but has yet to be passed in the Senate. You can read the fact sheet and section by section summary, and track the bill’s progress in Congress.  

Articles and Instagram 

Why It’s So Rare For Police Officers To Face Legal Consequences | FiveThirtyEight


Which States Are Taking on Police Reform After George Floyd? | The Marshall Project


What works to reduce police brutality | American Psychology Association 


So You Want to Talk About Police Brutality | @soyouwanttotalkabout


So You Want to Talk About Qualified Immunity | @soyouwanttotalkabout


So You Want to Talk About Defunding the Police | @soyouwanttotalkabout


So You Want to Talk About Police Unions | @soyouwanttotalkabout


Police Unions Are Also the Problem | @theslactivists


Why Do Police Keep Getting Away with Abuse? | @theslacktivists 




  • Arrest: “The act of seizing a person to take into custody. An arrest must be based on probable cause.” 
  • Probable Cause: “A belief, based on specific facts, that would lead a reasonable police officer to conclude that it is likely that a person has broken a law.”
  • Civilian Oversight Board: “A formal collection of community members that aim to hold police officers and police departments accountable for their actions and policies. Oversight bodies should represent all sectors of a community, including those disproportionately targeted by policing.”
  • Consent Decree: “A court-ordered agreement that outlines changes that police departments must make to comply with the U.S. Constitution. Often, independent monitors oversee consent decrees.” 
  • Police Union: “Like other workforce unions, police unions represent individual police officers and negotiate union contracts with police departments, including provisions on discipline and accountability. Police unions often take an active role in advocating for legislation and policies favorable to police officers.”
  • District Attorney: “A lawyer who is elected or chosen by local government officials to represent the state government in criminal cases brought in a designated county or judicial district. A DA's duties typically include reviewing police arrest reports, deciding whether to bring criminal charges against arrested people, and prosecuting criminal cases in court. The DA may also supervise other attorneys, called Deputy District Attorneys or Assistant District Attorneys. In some states, a District Attorney may be called a Prosecuting Attorney, County Attorney, or State's Attorney. In the federal system, the equivalent to the DA is a United States Attorney. The country has many U.S. Attorneys, each appointed by the president, who supervise regional offices staffed with prosecutors called Assistant United States Attorneys.”
  • Civil complaint: “The pleading that starts a case. Essentially, a document that sets forth a jurisdictional basis for the court's power, the plaintiff's cause of action, and a demand for judicial relief. A plaintiff starts a civil action by filing a pleading called a complaint. A complaint must state all of the plaintiff's claims against the defendant and must also specify what remedy the plaintiff wants. After receiving the complaint, the defendant must respond with an answer. . . Complaints must be served on defendants. This lets defendants know that they are being sued and why. . . [P]leading standards for complaints may vary widely from state to state, or between state and federal courts located in the same state.” 
  • Criminal complaint: “[A criminal complaint] is slightly different from a civil complaint. Instead of an individual filing the complaint, the government usually files the criminal complaint against the individual . . . Essentially, it’s a court-issued document, that charges the suspect, defendant with specific crimes. As the name implies, an individual is charged with a crime by the criminal complaint. Usually in criminal cases, the police first arrest the suspect, defendant, and then file a report to the local prosecutor. Then, the prosecutor decides whether to formally process charges against the suspect, defendant. The prosecutor’s decision to charge the suspect, defendant, with the crime is based on whether there is enough evidence and whether the case is worth the prosecutor’s time. In some states, the criminal complaint has to be filed before the court issues an arrest warrant. The processes for a complaint vary throughout jurisdictions, and it is normally the prosecutor who determines whether to present the criminal complaint to the court.” 
  • Indictment: “An indictment formally charges a person with a criminal offense. . . During an indictment proceeding, a grand jury determines that there is adequate basis for bringing criminal charges against a suspected criminal actor.” 
  • Grand jury: “In the United States, a grand jury consists of 16 to 23 people.  Grand juries convene for a period of one month up to one year.  The grand jury proceedings are held in private; the suspected criminal actor is usually not present at the proceedings. The grand jury acts as an investigative body, acting independently of either prosecuting attorney or judge.  Criminal prosecutors present the case to the grand jury.  The prosecutors attempt to establish probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been committed. . .  The grand jury assesses whether there is adequate basis for bringing a criminal charge against a suspect.”