First the good news: over the last two decades, many governments have embraced the Internet as a way to make data, open meeting records, purchasing documents, and other important information available to the public.
Now, the bad news: governments aren't always great at executing the vision of open government and it can often be incredibly frustrating to hunt down the information you need.
Now, a little more good news: government agencies tend to emulate each other and use many of the conventions and even the same vendors. That means you can often use the same techniques to navigate their websites.
With that in mind, here are some tips for using local government websites for research.
Look for multiple websites
Cities and counties usually have a website. Often times their police and sheriff's departments also will have their own websites. You will always want to check both, since each may have different information useful to your reseach.
San Diego County, Calif. has a website at https://www.sandiegocounty.gov
But the San Diego County's Sheriff's department has its own website at https://www.sdsheriff.net
To further complicate things, the San Diego District Attorney's Office has yet another website at: https://www.sdcda.org
Searching a government website
Most government websites have a search function, usually visible in the top half of the website. These can be very useful for a first-pass search.
Unfortunately, these search tools are not very powerful. You will find that they often will produce zero useful results. That's why we recommend using a search engine such as Google or Bing and the "Site Search" function. We talk about this in detail on the Search Engine Basics page, but here's an example of how you might use a search engine to probe a government website:
One benefit of this technique is that the search engine will often return documents and pages that may not be directly linked or publicized through the website's regular interface. There are a lot of documents on government websites that aren't properly described or even visible, except through a search like this.
The large majority of law enforcement agencies in the United States maintain a social media presence and in some cases, agencies will use Facebook in place of having an actual website of their own. Agencies may also use specialized social media sites like Nixle and Nextdoor to communicate.
You can often find information about surveillance technology on these pages, but it can be a slog to go through. However, if you are specfically looking for body-worn cameras, you may want to look through the agencies' Facebook images because you can often spot a camera in a photo of an officer. The same goes for automated license plate readers, which are sometimes visible on patrol cars. Cops also like to take photos of themselves flying drones.
If you scroll to the bottom of a government website, you are likely to find a link named "site map." This is a directory of all the different pages and sections of the website. For example, if you scroll to the bottom of the city of Reno's website, you'll see this link:
If you click that, you'll end up on a page that looks like this, which may be much easier to use than the regular navigation bar:
Thanks to laws requiring government bodies to make their meetings open and accessible to the public, many city councils and county commissions keep an open repository of all their meeting agenda and minutes, along with the hundreds of pages of attachments that are part of what they call the meeting "packet." Those documents can include all kinds of eye-opening information, not just about surveillance, but about all forms of public business.
On some government websites, you can also get links to the video and audio from hearings. In particularly transparent cities and counties, they will have the information not only for the main elected body, but for all committees, subcommittees, and task forces.
It's not always easy to find this link, so you may need to browse around. Look for keywords like "meetings," "agendas," "minutes," etc. For example, here's how you would navigate to find these documents on the City of Sacramento's website.
First we looked for the link to the meetings page. In this case, it was under the "City Hall" menu.
That opened this page, which has both the upcoming meeting agenda, and the historical records:
We clicked on the archived meeting of the "City Council" and it brought us to this page:
We clicked on the first "Agenda" link and ended up on a page displaying this information (just a snippet because the page is several page scrolls long):
Each of those blue links is a PDF document that gives more information about the agenda item.
One of the items much further down the page just happened to be called, "Rejection of Bids for Modular Video Surveillance Cameras." When we clicked on that link, we ended up wtih a document that told us something interesting: the city is proposing to create a new citywide camera system, but its original plan turned out to insufficient and staff is going back to the drawing board.
Each site is a little bit different, so we recommend just clicking around until you find the right information.
One last tip about government meetings sites. Did you notice the URL above, "sacramento.granicus.com"? That's a totally different website than the regular "cityofsacramento.org."
Storing all that media can be too big a task for government agencies, and so agencies will often outsource file management. That means important documents might not appear when you search the government website through the website's interface.
So, if you see the URL change, you might want to try pasting it into a Google site search, like this:
Records rooms and open data portals
Many cities have adopted new ways to search for records.
Records rooms: This is an online library of all kinds of documents that may be useful to your research. If you are lucky, the agency has attached a search function specifically for these documents.
Public records request portals: Most states have laws that allow members of the public to file requests for government documents. Some cities and counties have set up central hubs where they keep all the records. Often, these systems are searchable. Surveillance is a hot issue among community advocates and journalists, so it's likely that someone else has already filed a request about the technology you are researching. Here's the City of San Diego's public records portal:
Open data portals: Many agencies have decided that they can promote information by releasing datasets of information they collect to the public through an open data hub or portal. This may not be that useful for the purposes of Report Back, but sometimes you can get interesting information on police activities. For example, through the California Department of Justice's open data portal, you can download a dataset showing occasions where police have obtained search warrants to search people's phones, computers, or online accounts.
Got any other tips, questions, or requests for additional guidance on government sites? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.