COLORADO SPRINGS — Have you ever considered filing an open records request to see if the numbers actually support what you're being told by politicians and government leaders? News5's takes a look at the laws designed to make this information accessible and how they work.
Open records requests are an important tool that we as journalists use to hold government and law enforcement agencies accountable while also promoting transparency. Colorado's laws allow you, our viewers, the same rights to open records and public information.
CORA, also known as the Colorado Open Records Act, applies to state and local governments such as city hall, public works and your local fire department.
CCJRA, also known as the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, applies only to criminal justice agencies such as police departments and the district attorney's office.
These are important laws that can help us unlock information that impacts our way of life right here at home.
"Study after study shows that the American people are for whatever set of reasons distrustful of national news media. Both sides of the political aisle, newspapers, you name it, but are far more trusting of local sources," said President of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and media lawyer Steven Zansberg. "The New York Times isn't keeping an eye on El Paso County and Colorado Springs, only you are. When you show the public that government is acting properly and the records confirm and support what politicians and officeholders are saying that instills trust."
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Colorado made some changes to public access to law enforcement records.
"Our state adopted a wonderful bill that requires completed internal affairs investigation files of all law enforcement agencies to be released to the public after they are completed," said Zansberg.
But it is not retroactive.
In other types of criminal justice records requests, law enforcement agencies can still deny requests and they are able to weigh the public's interest in having the information and the agency's interest in keeping records confidential before coming to that decision.
The experts tell News5 there are still some areas improvements should be made to these laws.
"I hear from plenty of just regular people who are trying to understand something about what their state government is doing or their school district, or their county government, or their city government," said Executive Director of Colorado Freedom Of Information Coalition Jeff Roberts.
One area is in records retention. In some cases, open records requests are being denied by officials because old emails have been deleted.
"The records retention law in Colorado we think is very weak. You put a journalist digging into some problem, you might want to request emails from public officials from six months ago, a year ago, or two years ago and they may no longer exist," said Roberts.
Another area is how much it could cost someone to get the information they are requesting.
"The legislature capped the hourly rate, but not the amount of hours that can be used to calculate how much is charged to the records requester and this can result in bills of hundreds or thousands of dollars," said Roberts.
Open records advocates are actively working with Colorado lawmakers to see what can be done. One of the areas surrounds electronic communications like emails and text messages that discuss public business. The goal is to try to establish a clear standard for how long those communications need to be retained before they are lost or deleted.
If you would like more information on filing your own open records to request you can get help from the experts at the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition have an email and a Hotline you can access.
For more information and resources visit the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition website.