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Editorial: Police doing a poor job of allowing public access to records

Police departments in New York State are doing a poor job informing the public on such issues as the use of force, complaints about alleged brutality, racial profiling and the use of surveillance technology.

The Freedom of Information Law gives the public the right to access most government records. Those records, as pointed out by the New York Civil Liberties Union, have been paid for by the public and collected by public employees.

So why is transparency so difficult, as documented by the NYCLU in police departments in almost two dozen towns and cities across the state?

The obvious answer – that secrecy is easier than explaining controversial conduct – is unacceptable.

The willingness of police departments across the state to withhold information from the public is laid bare in the NYCLU’s recent report, “Taking Cover,” viewable at nyclu.org/policereportcard.

The report exposes how police departments in towns and cities across the state attempted to fend off FOIL requests.

The organization sent requests for records to 23 police departments from Buffalo to Nassau County in 2015. The responses were largely disappointing, with only one request fulfilled in a timely manner. The organization subsequently filed lawsuits in 22 cases.

The Buffalo Police Department did finally manage to fulfill the organization’s request – but only after being hit with a lawsuit. A request to the Lockport Police Department did not require a lawsuit, although the request is still ongoing.

Out of 23 departments, 20 “delayed their initial response to our request beyond what is permissible under the law,” the Civil Liberties Union said in its report. In addition to a failure to acknowledge the FOI request within five business days, as the law requires, some police departments redacted, or blacked out, information beyond what the law allows.
The Civil Liberties Union has useful, if not obvious, recommendations for police departments, including maintaining better records and categorizing traffic stops by race, for example. Departments also should post their written policies online.

Legislatively, the organization urges the repeal of a state law that allows police departments to withhold police personnel records or any record used to evaluate officer performance or fitness for promotion.

The executive director puts it best: “No department should be a black box.”

Police departments are not private businesses. They must be accountable to the public, and doing a better job releasing information is part of being accountable.

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