Police departments in almost two dozen towns and cities across the state tried to dodge Freedom of Information requests seeking information about their use of force, complaints about alleged brutality, racial profiling and the use of surveillance technology, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, which sent out the FOI requests.
The Civil Liberties Union says it sent 23 police departments, from Buffalo to Nassau, requests for records in 2015. It then had to appeal or file lawsuits in 22 cases. With the Buffalo Police Department, the organization said it filed a lawsuit for city records but that its request has now been fulfilled. A request sent to the Lockport Police Department, while not requiring a lawsuit, is still ongoing.
"Many departments completely ignored legal deadlines," the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a report made public Monday. "Many did not respond to our requests until we involved town or city attorneys.
"Out of 23 departments, 20 delayed their initial response to our request beyond what is permissible under the law. We were forced to file administrative appeals or lawsuits in 22 of our 23 requests. This is unacceptable."
The Civil Liberties Union said it intends to index and publish the records it receives from police departments – hundreds of thousands of pages so far – and offer analyses.
The Civil Liberties Union said it encountered stonewalling by some departments and a failure to acknowledge the FOI request within five business days, as the law requires. When some departments finally provided documents, the words in them were blacked out beyond what the law allows, the New York Civil Liberties Union said.
It recommended that police departments focus on keeping better records and choose to categorize their traffic stops by, among other things, the driver's race. The Civil Liberties Union also said the public and police departments would benefit if departments posted their written policies – many of which the union requested – online.
The Civil Liberties Union also urged the repeal of a New York law that lets police departments withhold police personnel records or any record used to evaluate an officer's performance or their fitness for promotion. Over the years, police departments have used the provision to keep secret a wide array of government records.
“Police are supposed to serve and answer to the people of New York, yet departments across the state are being run like secret clubs,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “No department should be a black box. Police must open their books to the People to ensure the kind of oversight and accountability that builds trust with the community.”
The NYCLU report, called "Taking Cover," can be found at www.nyclu.org/policereportcard.