How Ray Kelly's NYPD Ignores All Transparency Laws
Photo Credit: lev radin/Shutterstock.com
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The New York Police Department (NYPD) has come under fire for the potentially unconstitutional execution of its stop-and-frisk policy, and surveillance of Muslims. But if you think that the taxpayer-funded agency should be accountable to the public and forthcoming about what it’s doing, the story gets worse: it regularly flouts transparency laws, in an effort to make the records of how it perform its duties and the crimes it responds to, next to impossible for the average citizen to obtain.
The NYPD’s roughly 34,500 officers serve a population of 8.2 million people, but multiple interviews with reporters who cover the police department, as well as organizations dedicated to transparency, reveal a police department stunning in its disregard for the information requests of citizens, advocacy groups and news organizations.
The city’s Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is running for mayor, recently released a report asserting that a third of all Freedom of Information (FOI) records requests to the police department were ignored. The numbers are no surprise to journalists who cover the department, such as Leonard Levitt, a veteran cops reporter who now writes at NYPD Confidential.
“All I can tell you is that the NYPD does whatever it wants to regarding FOI requests,” Levitt said. “Which means they never turn anything over, at least not to me. The only time they did respond was after I got the NY Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) involved.”
The civil liberties group filed suit on behalf of Leavitt to obtain Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s daily calendar. The department said the commissioner’s whereabouts were secret for security reasons, which is a novel line of argument, given that President Barack Obama’s daily schedule is public.
In the past several years, the NYCLU has also sued the department to get data on the notorious stop-and-frisk program, as well as details on the race of people shot by officers. The NYCLU, currently wrapped up in a court case against the city’s stop-and-frisk program, was not available for comment.
Remapping the Debate, a public policy organization, filed a lawsuit against the NYPD in late April for withholding documents on protest permits. The group waited 11 months with no response before filing the suit.
“The documents sought are important to facilitating public understanding of how New York City has treated those seeking to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Christopher Dunn, the associate director of the NYCLU, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Remapping Debate’s experience of having received no documents more than 10 months after the requests were made is all too typical of how the NYPD violates its Freedom of Information Law obligations.”
The New York Times sued the department in 2010 seeking records on pistol permits, bias incident data, the department’s crime incident database and its FOIL logs.
“We started down this path because in our view the NYPD really had a practice of not complying with FOIL no matter what the request was,” New York Times assistant general counsel David McCraw said. “By and large, there is a disregard of the concept of openness and transparency. They do the minimal amount, they delay unnecessarily, and they fight over exemptions that reasonable people wouldn’t’ fight over.”
The Times’ suit has ping-ponged back and forth between the state’s trial and appellate courts with various degrees of success. Its request for gun permit data was denied, but the NYPD settled out of court to release the FOIL logs.
“The FOIL system is broken,” McCraw said.
The result is many journalists on the crime beat in New York City don’t even bother filing records requests. Reporters have to cultivate friendly sources within the department who will slip them documents. Not terribly unusual or burdensome for good reporters, but it effectively locks out everyone else.