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City must release police use-of-force records

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    News Media Update         NEW YORK         Freedom of Information    

City must release police use-of-force records

  • A unanimous high court ruled information on “use-of-force” incidents involving officers from the Schenectady Police Department must be made public.

July 1, 2004 — Information containing a record of Schenectady police officers using force against civilians must be made available to the public, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled Tuesday.

More than four years have passed since the New York Civil Liberties Union initially requested records from the Schenectady Police Department concerning “use-of-force” incidents involving its officers. The Court of Appeals ruled 7-0 that the department must release the information, even if not in use-of-force forms, stating in its opinion that the “‘run-around’ must end.”

The NYCLU originally sought the records after receiving numerous complaints from Schenectady County jail inmates that police abused them while they were being transported to the jail, said Melanie Trimble, executive director for the Capital Region chapter of the NYCLU. The group filed suit in July 2001 after 18 months in which the police department refused to comply with its public records requests.

“Our original intent was to look at the records to see if there was any unnecessary use of force and, if there was, to bring suit against the police department and possibly individual officers because there are no policies against force,” Trimble said.

The police department rejected the group’s first request, stating it was too broad, according to court records. The NYCLU then filed a request specifically seeking the department’s internal incident reports pertaining to use of force, to which it received no response. It appealed to the mayor, again without response, according to court filings.

The county court in Schenectady, where the case was initially heard, found in favor of the police department, citing a 1982 case in which specific “use-of-force” police reports were held exempt from the state open records law. An intermediate appellate court affirmed that decision.

When the NYCLU appealed again to the state’s high court, Schenectady’s attorney said no such use-of-force forms ever existed, calling it “misunderstanding of the record,” though the department previously refused the NYCLU’s requests for information without such explanation. The state’s high court then ruled that the department had to provide the NYCLU with the information, regardless of whether it is contained in a specific type of form or record.

“I think the appeals court sensed the disingenuousness on behalf of Schenectady,” Trimble said.

The Schenectady Police Department did not return calls seeking comment.

In its ruling, the high court sent the case back to the county court to resolve the issues of defining what constitutes use-of-force, which records contain that information, and how the department will have to provide those records.

During the trial in 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice began its own investigation into allegations of abuse by Schenectady police officers. The DOJ also made several recommendations to the police department concerning use-of-force, such as guidelines and options regarding use of force, progression of force and policies regarding force, according to a DOJ report.

A group of 13 media groups submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, requesting that the Court of Appeals overturn the 1982 ruling that held use-of-force forms were not subject to freedom of information requests. Because the Schenectady Police Department maintained that no such forms existed, the state’s high court said it could not decide that issue.

(NYCLU v. City of Schenectady; Counsel: William Schurtman, NYCLU, Albany) CZ

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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