The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Stalkers, please don’t read any further.
Compared to other states in the United States, Florida has very relaxed public records laws. As a journalist, it is pretty easy to get a hold of necessary records to verify who or what you are currently writing a story about. Did you know that your average citizen can also access these public records on any regular device? Well, I’m about to give you some next-level tips on how to do so! Maybe you’re here as a fellow journalist or lawyer keeping up to speed, or you’re investigating what your ex has been up to. I won’t judge.
Here are four kinds of documents you can access as public records in Florida that I previously assumed the government was gatekeeping all this time. This knowledge comes from my Applied Fact-Finding course I’m taking this semester at the University of Florida, which is taught by Professor Ted Bridis. It’s one of my favorite classes this semester because of how informative and useful the class content is, even when I’m not in journalism mode. Let’s get to it!
1. 911 Calls
I always wondered how news stations would gain access to audio of 911 calls to use in their broadcast stories. Now I know that these can be obtained from a county police’s communications center because they are all recorded. You can ask for 911 calls from a specific phone number or even for calls that come from a particular address. There’s a minimal processing fee, and you can even get them sent to you on an old-school CD.
2. Police Video Footage
For those that do turn them on, the recorded body camera footage is available under Florida’s public record laws. The first 15 seconds do not have audio though: this is because the feed must catch up after it is activated. Police officers can use these body cams to their advantage by reading out important information to research later, instead of taking the extra time to write it all down. An example of this is reading aloud the serial number of a gun to doublecheck the owner. Though, this tactic can also be used to manipulate its future viewers. By saying phrases like “stop resisting” while the body cam is recording, the officer can make it seem as if the other person is fighting back more than they are in retrospect.
The police’s public records don’t stop there, though! Video taken on cameras set up on police car dashboards, the backseats of police cars, and even from the force’s drones and helicopters is accessible to the American public. Helicopters are especially cool with their infrared cameras that spot any sources of heat. There is a catch in this state, however. It is outlawed to release any videos that show members of the police force being killed.
Pictures and videos won’t be included, but autopsies are public records too. You would contact the medical examiner’s office in the district where that specific person’s death occurred. Though, it is only available after that investigation is complete, so it would be difficult to use on a tight deadline. If you’re in a rush, try talking off the record to the police or firefighters at the scene. “Cause of death pending until autopsy is released” is your next best bet.
4. Whereabouts of Inmates in Prisons and Jails
First, a quick distinction between prison and jail is in order. I had always thought the words were interchangeable synonyms, but that’s not the case. When one is in jail, nine times out of ten they haven’t been convicted of a crime yet. They could be awaiting sentencing or a trial, while prisons hold those who have been convicted.
Sheriff offices publish daily jail logs with the names and details of defendants, including the crime committed. These can be emailed to anyone free of charge! The Bureau of Prisons has an inmate search tool to find where someone is in the federal prison system. In the state specifically, the Florida Corrections Department is your go-to.
After reading all this, I hope you appreciate these freedoms of information that we have in the United States, especially if you weren’t aware of these before. There’s a lot that we can access when doing research, especially in the state of Florida, which help journalists do their jobs fairly and accurately. I can’t wait to continue learning more information like this in Applied Fact-Finding. Be sure to take this course if you’d like to learn more as a J-school student at UF!