Freedom of Information and Laquan McDonald

Published on Jan 19, 2016 by Steven Vance

The story of how the Laquan McDonald video got released thanks to one curious journalist and the Freedom of Information Act.

Brandon Smith’s presentation at the Chi Hack Night on Jan 12, 2016

One night in Chicago

In the middle of the night on October 20, 2014, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, killing him.

Over a year later, a dashcam video of the shooting was released, sparking protests, the resignation of Chicago’s Police Chief, a federal investigation, and calls for the Mayor and State’s Attorney to resign.

That video was ordered to be released by a Cook County Circuit Court judge, based on a lawsuit filed by an independent journalist under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Screenshot from the released Laquan McDonald video

Screenshot from the released Laquan McDonald video

On January 12th, 2016, that journalist, Brandon Smith, shared his story at Chi Hack Night.

Smith started looking into the Laquan McDonald story after reading an article in Slate by Chicago human rights activist Jamie Kalven. Kalven had requested the autopsy report for McDonald, and found that it contradicted the official story told by the Chicago Police.

After some initial investigating, Smith got connected to William Calloway, a South Side Chicago activist, via a group text message. Calloway was convinced of police wrongdoing in this case, and was looking for someone to help file a request for a video of the shooting to be released.

“You’re probably accustomed to calling up an agency and asking for data”, Smith said to the Chi Hack Night audience. “Sometimes, you’re asking for data that could look bad for them” and they’ll decline your request.

“In that case”, Smith said, “you have a way to demand it from them. And they’re legally required to give it to you.” That way is through a FOIA request.

What is FOIA?

FOIA laws stem from the federal government, and come in different flavors across states and municipalities. At their core, FOIA establish a “right-to-know” legal process by which requests may be made for government-held information, to be received freely or at minimal cost, barring standard exceptions.

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act

(some of) The Illinois Freedom of Information Act

In Illinois, government agencies must respond to your FOIA request within five business days and they can ask and take a five-business day extension. They are legally required to reply to you, either with the data or materials respondent to your request, or with an explanation describing which of the seven specific exemptions they’re using to decline your request.

Yes, there’s an app for FOIA

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act

While anyone can file a FOIA request, there is a specific process that must be followed if you want an official response. To help with that, there are at least three tools Smith mentioned that can be used to make submitting FOIA requests easier:

  • FOIA Machine is a tool to catalog your requests and can help you find the right contact to whom to send your request. Additionally it saves your requests, so you can reuse them and have proof that you sent it, and it can generate boilerplate for you, so you can send a properly-formatted request.

  • MuckRock, similar to FOIA Machine, but charges a fee and has smart tools to automatically reply to rejection letters.

  • iFOIA, a free tool run by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Smith submitted his request via FOIA Machine for any video of the Laquan McDonald shooting. And then he waited for 4 months.

A request becomes a lawsuit

Smith, along with 10 other news agencies, filed a FOIA request for the dashcam video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting. After months of waiting, all were denied because, as the Chicago Police told them, “the investigation was ongoing.”

Smith alone decided to challenge that argument. “That’s not a legitimate exemption for the government”, he said. They would have to prove that the investigation really was ongoing and that releasing the information would interfere with it.

To file the FOIA suit, Smith turned to the civil rights firm, Loevy and Loevy, who took the case on free of charge. Under Illinois FOIA law, if the court rules in favor of the plaintiff and the government was found to be violating the FOIA law, they are required to pay attorney’s fees and court costs (this compensation isn’t available in all states and Smith says he’s working with Freedom of the Press Foundation to spread this law nationally).

Attorney Matt Topic, Brandon Smith, and activist William Calloway answer questions from reporters at the Daley Center courthouse Nov. 19 after winning their lawsuit against the city.

Attorney Matt Topic, Brandon Smith, and activist William Calloway answer questions from reporters at the Daley Center courthouse Nov. 19 after winning their lawsuit against the city

You’re all FOIA deputies now

Smith concluded his presentation by encouraging Chi Hack Night members to make more FOIA requests.

“My #1 advice to make a meaningful FOIA request is to think of something that would be a big news story if the government denied you the information. If the government said, ‘No, sorry you can’t have that’ with whatever excuse they had. You could give that response to a reporter at the [a local newspaper] and they would write about it.”

Brandon Smith at Chi Hack Night

Brandon Smith at Chi Hack Night

“What I’m trying to do with all of you here is, like, deputize you”, Smith offers.

And to that end, he announced that he will be leading a “mini FOIA class” at a voter registration drive this weekend on the South Side.

See more from the Q&A with Brandon Smith on the Chi Hack Night agenda.

This post was written by Steven Vance with notes contributed by Eric Chandler and anonymous Chi Hack Night members, and edited by Derek Eder.

About the author

Steven Vance

Steven Vance
Steven Vance is a web developer and transportation planner who writes for Streetsblog Chicago.