Ever since The Globe and Mail's Unfounded series launched, I've received hundreds of e-mails from both women and men offering to share their experience reporting sexual assault to police. Many have asked me how The Globe was able to obtain copies of police investigative files and whether I could help them get copies of the documents connected to their complaint.
If that describes you, what you'll be doing is filing a freedom-of-information request. The actual name of that request varies depending on where you live. If you're in Alberta dealing with the RCMP, it will be an Access to Information request. If you're in Toronto and filing with the local police it will be a municipal Freedom of Information request, but the broad steps are (mostly) the same.
First, know that you are going to be able to get a copy of your file only if the case has been closed. If the investigation is still happening or the case is proceeding through the court system, it will not be accessible to you.
You're going to need a piece of government-issued identification, such as a driver's licence or passport. Make a scan of the document, both front and back. The process will be easier if you have cheques. If you don't, you'll have to get a money order from the bank.
This is probably going to be the most complicated part. You need to figure out where to mail your request, how much it will cost and to whom to make out the cheque.
Open up your favourite search engine, type the name of the police service and then "freedom of information" in quotes.
Ideally, the link will show up right away. If you live in a big city, it likely will be obvious, but I've found that some of the smaller police services don't always make it clear where to send Freedom of Information requests. If this is the case, you have two options. You can either phone the main number and ask, or you can send the request to the police services' general address and write "Attention – Freedom of Information co-ordinator." In my experience, it ends up in the right hands.
Now you need to actually write the records request. Many police services will have an FOI form on their website. You are welcome to use this. I usually just write my own letter. On occasion, you will encounter a police service that demands you use its form. Either way, the information is the same. Below is a sample of what a letter could look like, but you may want to tailor yours to your specific case. For example, if you think there may be surveillance footage seized as evidence, ask for it. If you know your police interview wasn't videotaped, there's no need to ask for it. They should be giving you everything, but it doesn't hurt to be explicit.
Globe and Mail
351 King St. E.
To: The Freedom of Information co-ordinator.
My name is Robyn Doolittle. I was born on __,____,____. On or about the following day,___,____,___, I reported a sexual assault to the ____________ Police Service. The detective who dealt with my complaint is named __________. The incident happened at ____________. My case file number is ________. [You just want to give them enough information to find your file. If you don't happen to have your case file, that's okay. Include what you can.]
I am seeking copies of all available records related to my complaint, including, but not limited to: a copy of my videotaped statement, interview transcripts, police reports, officer notes, case synopses, photographs, hospital records/the results of a sexual-assault examination kit, surveillance footage collected as evidence, crime-scene photographs, e-mail correspondence with witnesses, and other official police forms relating to the investigation. [You may want to add or subtract from the list above, depending on your case.]
I am not seeking access to third-party information for private citizens.
Whenever possible, I would like this information electronically. Please mail a copy to my home address, listed above.
If you have any questions please contact me at XXX-XXX-XXXX.
You will notice I have included a line that says "I am not seeking access to third-party information." In almost every case I've seen, police are not going to give you copies of witness statements or suspect interviews. And asking for that information will likely slow this process a lot. That's why I typically get ahead of this problem and explicitly state that I'm not after this information. Now, maybe you do want to try and get these records. If so, just leave the line out and see how it goes. What will likely happen is the police service will get in touch with the individuals whose records you're asking for and ask if it's okay to release that information. If that person refuses, you likely won't get it.
Also of note, I like to ask for copies of records electronically, rather than get a stack of paper in the mail. You are likely going to have to pay a fee for your records and the co-ordinator will charge you per page (more on that later), so a CD usually works out to be cheaper. If you would prefer your records in paper format, just say so.
Most provinces charge a fee just to file for a Freedom of Information request. In most cases, the filing fee is $5. In Alberta, it's $25. Here's a confusing part: Let's say you reported sexual assault to the RCMP in Alberta – the fee is $5 because the Mounties are covered federally.
In most cases, make the cheque out to the full name of the police service, such as Toronto Police Service or New Glasgow Regional Police Service, but not always. For example, with the RCMP, the cheque would be made out to the The Receiver General for Canada.
If you don't have cheques, you can always go to the bank and get a money order.
Write the police service address on your envelope, put your request letter, the scan of your government ID and the completed cheque inside and you're done.
Once the police service receives your request, you're supposed to hear a response within 30 days. From there, I've found that it usually takes between one and three months for complainants to get copies of police records. Also something to keep in mind: Once the police service has processed your records, you will likely need to pay again before receiving them. I've found this to range between $50 and $120, depending on the materials.
If you're having trouble with any step in this process, send me an e-mail and I'll do my best to help. You can reach me at: email@example.com
If you've had success and were able to get a copy of your file and would feel comfortable discussing it with me, please get in touch so we can use your experience to help others gain access to their records.