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Washington Post Gives Rare Showcases to Freedom of Information Law

Fritz Mulhauser | March 25, 2024 | Last modified: June 8, 2024

The Washington Post recently devoted most of a full page in the front A Section to “A visual guide on how to FOIA,”—referring to the laws at the federal and state levels that empower the public to get government records.  Supporting the equivalent law in D.C. is a major mission of the Open Government Coalition.

Nate Jones, the paper’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) director, authored the page; Emily Joynton contributed the illustrations in the engaging style of a graphic novel.

Jones appears as a caped crusader in the first panel, standing by his Batmobile (license plate, “FOIA”) in front of the Post headquarters and leads readers on a path of seven steps from advance research (“no fishing expeditions”) to court challenge of an unjustified government denial.

His concluding cheery advice is that requesting “can be tricky but it’s worth the fight to keep a watchful eye on what your government is up to.”

Reporters rely on sources named and unnamed but also use Freedom of Information Acts every day to get government records, though the resulting stories don’t always acknowledge FOIA. This limits public awareness of the contribution of the open records laws as a source for the press that keeps us informed. The full-page shout-out to an essential tool of public information was heartening.

The Open Government Coalition keeps a running list of uses we spot in the D.C. press.

Also unusual was last December’s story, in which Nate Jones’s Post editors allowed him 1,700 words to detail a two-year battle for records on one former D.C. police officer whose celebrity as an effective liaison from MPD to the District’s skeptical LGBTQ community probably shielded him from accountability.  

The officer collected a dozen allegations of misconduct from 2003 to 2017, such as the use of excessive force, inappropriate language (including while in court), missed administrative deadlines, the loss of police ammunition, and three “preventable” car accidents.

MPD investigation records, finally released when the Post sued D.C., showed all but one of the allegations were sustained yet led to little discipline. That willful official blindness was a vivid example of a double standard for who must follow the rules; many in the community suspect that, but can rarely prove it. In this case, the records eventually saw the light of day and allowed the reporters to show how a popular officer was spared any significant consequence for abusing the public trust as he did his work away from the limelight.

Changes in FOIA made this court success possible. Records of handling complaints of police misconduct have not been available by FOIA request for years, shielded by a D.C. government legal interpretation the Coalition has questioned repeatedly, that officers’ privacy would be invaded by release of complaint files and no public interest would be served.

The D.C. Council reversed this reasoning in a section of the 2022 police reform bill, developed in the months after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Council action followed the D.C. Police Reform Commission’s recommendation that full transparency of complaint records was an essential step in reviving community trust in law enforcement.

As Jones recounts, in reversing the D.C. government denial and opening the records the D.C. Superior Court noted the government was “somewhat tone-deaf” defending its secret records with a “pre-George Floyd view of FOIA” (emphasizing officer privacy rather than public concern for police accountability–a balancing test required by D.C. law). The judge called it “an argument repudiated by recent [D.C. Council] legislative action and a whole mood change within the city and the country.”

So the 2022 change in D.C. FOIA was a beacon light for the D.C. court, signaling a new view of the important public interest in transparent police records–the same signal that legislatures in California, New York, Maryland, and more have sent.

Jones’s account in the December story shows the powerful insight that can come from records that eventually reach the sunlight—when a court takes a favorable view of the public interest. Unfortunately, few of the public have the resources to wage the costly two-year court battle that The Washington Post endured (though the court did order the District to repay $70,000 of legal expenses).

The law is on the books for the court to recognize but not yet practically implemented to assist others; the mayor declined to budget for staff to carry out the Council’s 2022 direction to open discipline files to FOIA requests generally. (See Coalition analysis of the funding fight here.)

The D.C. Open Government Coalition welcomes the Post’s publication of both the guide to using FOIA and the story of their reporters’ fight for police records, which turned out well because the court acknowledged the D.C. Council has wisely expanded FOIA.