‘Embarrassing’ police disciplinary records exempt from disclosure
NEW YORK–The state high court ruled unanimously in early April that potentially embarrassing police disciplinary records are exempt from disclosure under state open records law.
The Court of Appeals, sitting in Albany, overturned a lower court decision ordering the release of names of Schenectady police officers who were disciplined for throwing eggs at a car during an officer’s bachelor party.
Two Schenectady newspapers sought comprehensive access to records of disciplinary action taken against the officers, including their names and individual punishments. The high court noted that the request could be used to embarrass or humiliate the officers and should therefore not be released.
The statutory exemption closing the records was designed to prevent “abusive exploitation of personally damaging information contained in officers’ personnel records,” the high court observed. The specific purpose for the request is not relevant, the court noted, adding that its analysis is governed by any possible uses to which the information might be put.
“Potential abusive exploitation of the damaging information in personnel records exists irrespective of how, at whose behest and for what purpose the information was released into the public domain,” the court noted. Once published, the requested information “will be fully available for all of the forms and practices of abusive exploitation that [the exemption] was designed to suppress.”
The court did suggest, however, that requesters could avoid the exemption by narrowly tailoring the requests to avoid seeking information that could be damaging. Agencies could also avoid the same concerns by redacting records prior to release, the court added. Thus, the court concluded, it may be possible to provide information about a matter of legitimate public interest without undermining the legislative intent of the exemption.
In May 1997, a group of off-duty Schenectady police officers chartered a bus for an officer’s bachelor party. During a tour of local night spots, some of the officers pelted a civilian car with raw eggs. Eighteen of the officers secretly admitted their involvement and were sanctioned by the police department. (In the Matter of Daily Gazette Co. v. City of Schenectady)