We’re not sure why leaders of the West Seneca Police Department want to keep secrets from the taxpayers who fund their salaries, but they clearly do. They are abusing their authority, misusing their residents and making the town’s elected officials look weak. Maybe they are.
Here’s the problem: West Seneca Police Chief Daniel M. Denz seems to think the law is what he says it is. He thinks providing the police blotter to reporters – which is to say, the public – is a “courtesy” that he can cancel at his whim. He thinks it’s his decision whether to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Law. He thinks it’s his prerogative to keep the town’s residents in the dark about crimes committed on their streets and in their neighborhoods.
He is incorrect. Town officials and residents need to explain things to him.
The law does let police redact parts of public records – parts of them – if their release would impede investigations or deprive a person of a fair trial, according to Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the New York State Committee on Open Government. But when West Seneca Police simply refused to release information on a recent murder-suicide, no such circumstances were at play. It was arrogance or laziness, and
“I think they’re taking the easy way out by issuing the blanket denial,” O’Neill told The News. So would anyone with common sense. Denz apparently thinks town residents have none.
It’s not an isolated incident. The town’s police department has routinely denied basic information not only to The Buffalo News but to two weeklies that cover the town: the West Seneca Bee and the new West Seneca Sun, a publication of The Buffalo News.
It’s not about the newspapers, but about the newspapers’ readers – residents who have a fundamental right to know what is going in their town. That’s democracy; the right is not the police department’s to obstruct simply because it prefers to keep its secrets.
Yet, that is precisely what West Seneca police are doing. The department has required the Sun’s staff to file formal requests under the Freedom of Information Law even for routine matters. In one case, the department said it would cost about $152 to get a week’s worth of reports. Other police departments covered by Sun newspapers provide regular access to reports. West Seneca is a law enforcement outlier.
The West Seneca Bee has its own problems with this mismanaged police department, which petulantly cut off the paper’s access to reports after it published an editorial informing readers of the police department’s impertinence. Police said the blotter was provided merely as a “courtesy,” according to then-Editor Jennifer Waters.
Make no mistake, these hurdles are meant to discourage any effort to inform readers of the police department’s activities. And, of course, even if reporters or members of the public were to submit FOIL requests, these officials are willing to deny them, anyway.
The department’s disdain for the public is cavalier and ominous. What is its objection to dealing straight with the public? Why is it acting as though it has something to hide?
It needs to change, and if Denz won’t get right with the law – its letter and its spirit – then his superiors in town government need to force the issue. West Seneca Town Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan and members of the Town Board are directly accountable to the voters their police chief holds in such contempt. They need to show their constituents that they have the spine to demand appropriate and routine openness from the department or prepare to change its leadership. Residents should expect nothing less.
And if elected town leaders won’t comply, they can be changed, too.