Public records are my passion. They can be yours too.
Sometimes you gotta go FOIA mode
I’m getting a reputation around town as the guy who will help you file a public records request. I can live with that.
Thursday afternoon at the State Library in Columbia, I’ll be leading a free workshop on how to use the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act to dig up information and hold powerful people accountable. If you happen to be in Columbia on April 27 at 4 p.m., come say hey! The event registration is here. I’m hoping we’ll be able to record the session, and I’ll share the recording later if it’s available.
Each state’s open-records law is a little different, but the main point I want to convey is: Public records are for everyone! Not just for journalists, not just for lawyers, and not just for grizzled veteran activists.
In preparation, I’ve been revisiting some of the biggest stories I’ve uncovered using public records. Humor me, please, on this trip down memory lane.
A sort-of ban on texting while driving
Price tag: Free
The question: In the fall of 2013, two towns near me — Charleston and Mount Pleasant — passed ordinances banning distracted driving. South Carolina was one of 3 states without such a law on the books at the time, so the councils of these two municipalities passed their own ordinances making it illegal to text, email, or enter an address in GPS while operating a vehicle that was not parked.
Five months later, people all around me were definitely still texting while driving, and I wondered: How many tickets had the cops actually written since the bans went into effect?
The answer: Almost zero.
This one didn’t even require a FOIA request. As my old journalism professor Doug Fisher used to say, FOIA should be a last resort. It can be a useful tool, but it sets a long deadline for responses and it can set you up for potential search and redaction fees. For this story, I went straight to the municipal courts and asked the clerks how many cases had come up involving distracted-driving tickets. In both Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, the answer they gave me was “none.”
I was working for the alt-weekly Charleston City Paper at the time, and apparently my online article on the subject flustered the spokesman of the Charleston Police Department. He called me up the next day to explain that, actually, officers were “aggressively enforcing” the new ordinance.
So, I asked, how many tickets had they written?
His answer was … one.
My story ran in February 2014. Three months later, an industrious intern named Ashley Sprouse picked up the story and ran with it. She checked in with both police departments and found that they had written a combined 10 tickets for distracted driving.
Police spying on BLM activists
Price tag: Free
The question: In the weeks immediately after North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager murdered Walter Scott in 2015, local activists involved with the then-nascent Black Lives Matter movement told me they were being surveilled by law enforcement. Strangers were showing up at meetings taking pictures, and at least once, activists had confronted a North Charleston cop who was sitting in an unmarked Chevy Impala outside their meeting space.
I wanted to know: Were the cops monitoring BLM activists?
The answer: Yes.
I filed a FOIA request with the City of North Charleston seeking emails that mentioned BLM. The emails showed discussions of the group among North Charleston police and city officials, Charleston County officials, the American Red Cross, and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
A SLED officer asked local officials to pass along “all information/intel from any agency regarding gatherings/protests, people coming into town, threats, etc.” The officer also offered their own “intel.”
“There are 30-40 people staying in a hotel in Summerville (unknown location at this time) that have come into town from Ferguson,” the SLED officer wrote, referring to the Missouri city where the police killed Michael Brown.
I never received solid answers on how SLED got that information. Local police flatly denied that they were infiltrating activist meetings, but I didn’t get official denials from any other agencies.
“These things were definitely happening and definitely scared people away with the knowing or not knowing of who was behind these cameras and what their intention was,” local BLM leader Muhiyidin d’Baha told me at the time. “There was a lot of fear, and there’s still a lot of fear, among the people that need to rise up right now.”
School bus fires
Price tag: Free
The question: In 2016 I was a new dad working on the education beat for South Carolina’s largest newspaper. I noticed a series of disturbing headlines from around the state about school buses catching on fire with kids inside. I looked at the photos of charred bus husks and kids stranded on the side of country highways, and I thought: This seems less than ideal.
How often, exactly, were South Carolina school buses catching on fire?
The answer: At least 177 times between 1996 and 2016.
I can’t remember if I had to invoke FOIA to get the data this time, but it helped that I knew what records to request. A previous reporter on the beat, Ron Menchaca, had written a story in 2007 about school bus fires, which were called “thermal events” in the dry terminology of state recordkeeping. The number of recorded school bus thermal events at the time was just over 100.
Writing in 2007, Ron found that South Carolina’s state-run school bus fleet was one of the oldest and most polluting fleets in the country, and that its rear-engine Thomas Built buses from model years 1995-1996 were especially prone to electrical fires.
Ron’s reporting prompted the South Carolina General Assembly to pass a law (overriding a veto from then-Gov. Mark Sanford) requiring the state to replace one-fifteenth of the state’s bus fleet, or about 375 buses, in every budget year.
Nine years later, I requested some statistics regarding the state bus fleet and found that the legislature had failed to fund its own mandate in all but two budget years. For four straight years of austerity during the Great Recession, the state bought no new buses at all. Our lawmakers were openly breaking their own funding laws (par for the course here, unfortunately).
So we still had highly flammable 1995 and 1996 buses (and a few as old as 1988) on the road, with kids inside. The average age of a South Carolina school bus had actually increased to 15.5 years old (up from 14 years old in 2007), and the average odometer reading had ticked up to 236,000 miles.
I’ve given up ascribing motives to the politicians who are sabotaging and ransacking our schools, and I can’t know if my article prompted any of them to action. I do know that as of New Year’s Day 2019, every 1995-96 school bus on the state fleet had been sent to the scrap yard and replaced with a new bus. The legislature paid for the one-time purchase of replacement buses mainly with non-recurring funds from the South Carolina Education Lottery, which is supposed to fund in-state college scholarships. They had to override a veto from Gov. Henry McMaster to buy those buses.
Ah, memories. I’ve used FOIA and publicly available records to dig up all kinds of grim stories.
I used student headcounts from the South Carolina Department of Education to show that two-thirds of charter schools were illegally segregated according to the state’s own definition. I requested a trove of the state superintendent’s emails and showed that she was exaggerating the public demand for a gag order on “critical race theory” in the classroom.
I used police incident reports to show that the Charleston apartment complex where a young man died in a suspicious confrontation with a police officer was a site of rampant overpolicing. In one of the more disturbing stories I’ve ever reported, I requested investigative files from a pair of sex abuse cases at a local high school and found that the school had placed one accused abuser in charge of investigating the other.
I say all of this not to brag, or even to suggest that my reporting made a difference (in many cases it did not). I want to provide some examples of the facts you can dig out with a basic knowledge of public records law.
What I am still struggling with, now that I’m out of the straight-news business, is translating public records into effective activism. It’s one thing to reveal a horrible truth. It’s another thing to change it.
If you’re interested in doing some public records research, muckrock.com is a great place to look for resources, including already-available public records and tools for filing and tracking your own requests. For South Carolinians in particular, the South Carolina Press Association’s Citizen’s Guide to SCFOIA is indispensable. I use it all the time.
Before I let you go, I want to mention that the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association has set up a scholarship in honor of my former Post and Courier colleague Greg Yee, a kind friend and excellent crime reporter who died unexpectedly in January at age 33. You can apply for the Gregory Yuen Yee Scholarship or make a donation by clicking here. I miss Greg. I’m glad to see his memory honored in this way.
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