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Editorial: City should give up ill-considered effort to conceal video of jailhouse beating

The Buffalo Police Department’s refusal to release video of a brutal assault on an inmate flies in the face of the state’s Freedom of Information Law. The Buffalo News has, therefore, filed a lawsuit in order to obtain a video that, as a public record, should already be in the public domain.

City officials claim they cannot release the video without the permission of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the cellblock attendant shown in the video.

However, the public has a fundamental right to know what government employees are doing in a public facility. Because the city is standing its ground, The News initiated court proceedings. The first court arguments are scheduled to be heard Jan. 25 by State Supreme Court Justice Tracey A. Bannister.

People who have seen the video say it reveals an appalling level of misconduct. According to the police report on the May 19 incident, former senior cellblock attendant Matthew Jaskula grabbed a handcuffed prisoner, Shaun F. Porter, and slammed him face-first into a steel door. Then, investigators said, Jaskula dragged Porter down a hallway, striking his head on the frame of a cell door. Porter received no medical care for more than an hour. Finally, police say, Jaskula lied to his superiors about Porter’s injuries.

The video also reportedly shows two police officers failing to stop the assault.

Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball says, “the video in question is currently being used for the purposes of prosecuting a crime.” But the city has already released details of the assault. The video is as much a public record as the police report.

In addition, the U.S. attorney has no authority over requests for public records involving another government agency. And while there is a prosecution underway,  previous court rulings have required government agencies to show how releasing a public record will jeopardize the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The city has not done so in refusing to release the Jaskula video.

The city also uses an overly broad interpretation of a New York civil rights statute meant to restrict access to the personnel records of most uniformed employees, weakly arguing that the video could be considered a personnel record because it might be used to evaluate the employee’s job performance.

Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, rejects that argument and has said: “The public has the right to be aware of the conduct of government employees, particularly when an employee is the subject of criminal charges.”

This is a matter of great public concern, with both a federal prosecution of the cellblock attendant and a lawsuit by the victim in progress. The public has a right to know what the government it is paying for is doing. Access to government records, in this case a video, is essential to ensuring that right.

The city should save the time and money being spent to keep a public record hidden, and release the video.

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